It’s been a month since Gartner’s yearly “evaluation” of the Unified Communications market and the vendors therein.
There have been multiple blog posts (Ståle Hansen, Matt Landis etc), tweets and podcasts (The UC Architects for one) pointing out their disagreements over the Gartner verdict, putting Cisco at the “leading” spot in front of Microsoft.
For those unfamiliar with this yearly “moment of truth” from Gartner, nothing has really changed from last year’s release – only that this year Microsoft had released the Lync 2013 server and client that have really improved from the shortcomings of former versions. So expectations were high that Microsoft would once more reclaim the “throne” of UC, and the disappointment equally present when it wasn’t so.
As a consultant working mainly with Lync myself, I have to admit feeling a little “disappointed”. So how could Gartner get it this wrong? Or did they?
First of all, a little disclaimer: I will not make this post a complete dismantling of the Gartner report, tearing apart every statement made about Microsoft’s Lync solution and their fiercest competitor (aka Cisco). I do however have some points of view on some, and I will try to put them out there as unbiased as I can. I promise.
Furthermore I would recommend anyone slightly interested in this to read the full report themselves, to get the full grasp of how the verdict is made. But beware, it is not a lightly digested material to dig into.
Gartner divides UC into six broad communications product areas:
- Voice and telephony
- Presence and IM
- Communications-enabled Applications
To be part of the UC report vendors will have to prove their worth within all, or at least the majority of these.
Digging into the report you find that Gartner will weight two main axis when putting the vendor’s “spot” in the Magic Quadrant (MQ): The Ability to Execute (Y-axis) and the Completeness of Vision (X-axis).
On the X-axis, there is high weight on the Offering (Product) Strategy, or to put it in Gartner’s words: The vendor’s approach to product development and delivery that emphasizes differentiation, functionality, methodology and feature sets as they map to current and future requirements.
On this evaluation criteria I will argue that Gartner deems legacy or current solution approaches higher than “visionary” ones. Let me explain, first by pointing to Gartner’s words that I believe supports my statement:
Microsoft’s relative positioning was hurt this year by their slow progress in addressing enterprise telephony requirements, or at least in defining pragmatic telephony advice.
This seems to indicate that traditional or legacy PBX telephony features and functionality is more important. I will be the first to acknowledge that Microsoft is not the “spearhead” within this area, only recently did they add functionality for Group Pickup (something widely adopted in legacy PBX systems, and long asked for by Lync consultants) and something simple such as forwarding calls from the admin’s perspective (e.g. for numbers not assigned to a user or to change a user’s forwarding settings) can be quite the tedious affair. Microsoft and Lync did not originate from this product area, but features related to it have been slowly and steadily improving.
On the other hand, from the visionary point of view, I will claim that Microsoft’s approach to this area is quite different and maybe even better; putting the user in charge of his or her preferred telephony behaviour. Group Pickup could easily be replaced by each user setting up their own Team-Call groups, so that incoming calls were handled – and in the end that is what matters, right? The same goes for Call Forwarding settings, where the user has full control of where and when (how many rings, off-work hours handling etc) an incoming call should flow if they were not able to answer it themselves. And all of this achieved without having to ask the IT department to set it up. Now, that’s gotta be worth something? Right? No, said Gartner.
On the Y-axis, the emphasis were higher on the Product/Service and Overall Viability criteria. Summed up, the quality and feature set of the product, and the vendors financial strength and willingness to keep investing in the product.
Now, I have only glanced at Microsoft’s and Cisco’s annual report to understand if there was anything pointing to financial reasons for the outcome in the Gartner MQ – but found none. Both are solid companies. Cisco has by far the biggest portfolio within the UC segment, including products and services from web conferencing (WebEx), video conferencing (former Tandberg along with their own TelePresence series), IM& P (Jabber) and telephony (Call Manager related functionality). The quality and feature sets of each of them are impressive. They are making steady effort to integrate between different technologies and platforms, but in my humble opinion that progress is slow and often leaving the end user (along with the system admin) having to relate to a complex and mixed interface/feature set. For example; HD video to soft and mobile clients is now part of the “single” Jabber client, but setup/connectivity will differ depending on the underlying infrastructure (Callmanager/CUCM, WebEx or video conferencing/VCS). Also, the use of video conferencing or desktop sharing/presentation will rely on the existence of WebEx, video MCU or Meetingplace, all with different feature sets for the end user. The end user may also experience their “single client experience” as multiple clients firing up as the content of the call changes. Kudos to Cisco for enabling transition paths from a wide range of existing solutions and onto a “complete UC solution”, but it seems they may have been biting off more than they can chew – or they may need more dedicated effort to have their way. Still I believe that video is not possible for Mac users on Jabber, and URI dialling have not been possible to the pre 9.1 Jabber clients (and may still not be, I am not sure).
Microsoft on the other hand have delivered a single client since Lync 2010, although quite limited (and disappointing, may I add) on the mobile client side. With Lync 2013 they really raised the bar on what to expect from a real “unified” solution and experience:
- Totally reinventing the video story, enabling H.264 SVC as the unparallelled standard
- Full mobile client functionality (at least with the latest update for iOS and WP, enabling content viewing) regardless of platform (WP, iOS or Android) and communications carrier (WiFi, 3G/4G etc)
- Single and full client experience, even when attending from different browsers (Chrome, IE, Safari)
- Extensive developer support, now with both the .NET (UCMA) and Web (UCWA) API, allowing for numerous integration possibilities
If those do not vouch for Microsoft’s willingness in developing the Lync platform, then what does?
Like I mentioned initially, trying to digest and understand the full report is not straight forward. In addition to the previously mentioned evaluation criteria (making up the axis’ scores), Gartner also states five “characteristics” of UC that will “drive success and end user satisfaction“. It is not clear to me whether or at what grade these are taken into the total consideration by Gartner, but some of the descriptions seem to indicate this. I will include the full text from the report decribing this below, and for each characteristic include my take on how Microsoft (or Cisco) position themselves:
- User experience (UX) — The quality and effectiveness of the overall user experience (UX) across all devices will heavily influence the effectiveness of the solution, its adoption rate and, ultimately, enterprise productivity. While consolidated administration and management are important characteristics of a successful solution, it is the high-quality end-user experience that will drive adoption and productivity.
Now, I’ve already been through this one previously. I would argue that Cisco’s multi-client-experience and different feature set between platforms (no video in Mac Jabber client for one) would weigh in favor of Microsoft’s more similar and single experience. Although not complete or perfect in Lync’s corner either, it is still much more of a “unified” UX.
- Mobility — User expectations of how UC solutions leverage mobility continue to escalate. In addition to demanding full UC functionality on mobile devices, users are starting to expect mobile devices to be integrated with desktop devices to allow for a more powerful work environment and to integrate UC with mobile consumer applications. In this year’s Magic Quadrant evaluation, we again place extra weight on mobility as it remains a key differentiator and requirement.
This is probably the area where Microsoft made the most progress with Lync 2013, improving the “featureless” mobile solution from Lync 2010. It’s quite strange that this did not seem to rate Microsoft higher, at least from the point that this was “a key differentiatior”
- Interoperability — Enterprises wish to avoid “closed gardens” and vendor lock-in, while enabling intercompany B2B, business-to-partner (B2P) and business-to-consumer (B2C) federation. Additionally, many enterprises will find their needs best served by using several vendors, either because of legacy investments or to enable a best-of-breed configuration. This research considers how vendors address these critical emerging interoperability requirements.
To be fair with Gartner, Microsoft got an “honorable review” on how their Skype integration will really play a key role in B2X collaboration. This, I believe, will be increasingly important as federation needs across organizations and businesses will be growing. With Google announcing that they are dropping XMPP support, it must be a real blow for Cisco in regards to federation. Microsoft now holds the majority of federation possibilities including the large user base of Skype users, really driving their B2X-vision.
Addressing the second part of this characteristic, namely the multi-vendor approach; Microsoft do not deliver a complete suite of products since they are not a hardware vendor (apart from the Surface and Xbox, that is). They rely on partners providing phone devices, branch appliances and gateways to mention some. But in the report, Microsoft is being “punished” because this drives a multi-vendor support issue. So on one side there should be multi-vendor openings, but having to relate to more than one point-of-contact for support is not an option? This seems kind of impossible to hold the vendor responsible for.Cisco, on the other hand, are really “locking down” their customers, since all parts of the solutions needs to be all Cisco (phones, infrastructure etc). This is positive in a support perspective, but is deviating from the “key characteristic” made by Gartner, to drive “success and end user satisfaction”. Cisco also receives a “caution” by customers feeling pressured to buy even non-UC-related equipment (networking and servers) from Cisco. And still Cisco receives the highest score in the quadrant?
- Cloud and hybrid — Integration of on-premises UC with cloud and hybrid UC services continues to play an increasingly important role as these options mature. While these options are considered in this Magic Quadrant’s evaluations, “Critical Capabilities for Unified Communications” provides a more specific review of these capabilities.
This is another field where Microsoft have done great improvements, with both their own cloud offering (Office 365) as well as Hosted Lync services by partners. I do agree that at the moment the road map for telephony is unclear, but given the Skype aquisition there will be interesting times to come – and June 2014 has already been announced as a time of “full fledged” Skype-Lync integration, whatever that will mean by then.
- Broad solution appeal — Successful UC solutions must be attractive to a broad and diverse audience of enterprise decision influencers. In addition to the end users, enterprise decision influencers span such diverse groups as IT, telecom, data communications, the audio-visual video group and members of the executive suite.
Now, in the first characteristic regarding UX, administration and management of the solution is “toned down”, but given that the appeal of the IT group should also count I cannot see how Cisco could compete with Microsoft in that sense; The single console of Lync versus (although improved) having to log in to several servers to manage your solution. The unrivaled power of Powershell when it comes to automation, even of tasks outside of your UC solution (such as AD user updates etc).
One final point I would like to make, is somewhat related to the evaluation criteria of Customer Experience – where one of the points is product user groups. It is my opinion that Microsoft is more mindful of the professional and user society around their products, where in part the MVP (Most Valuable Professional) plays a great role. They have a program for encouragement of those who spend time on forums, blogs and in public giving speeches etc, financing meetings where those people can get together and so on. Cisco only seems to cherish the technical level certifications (CCxA, CCxP and CCIE levels) along with partner channel programs. Individuals contributing in other ways are left with “honorable review” as top contributors in the Support commmunity, and little less.
Okay, so trying to sum up all of this: This was not meant to be a frontal attack on Cisco. I do think that their solutions are great, in particular the video conferencing and also their telephony solution, as I do have a good deal of experience with both. But I also feel they are not all that “unified”, and standing out as quite complex to both the end user, the system admin and the purchaser (or the one having to understand licensing). My take on this was me, as unbiased as I have been able to, trying to understand how Gartner could review Microsoft as falling short on Cisco, and increasingly so (from last years report). I completely see how Gartner weight more heavily on the traditional telephony features, and by doing so punished Microsoft for their shortages, but I cannot comprehend the fact that Microsoft’s vision and their strengths in other areas will outweigh this.
In the end these are both great solutions, and as I tell my customers considering implementing a UC solution it depends;
- On what your needs are, who you need to collaborate with and how
- On what your existing investments in telephony and video conferencing look like
A business or organisation having the need to collaborate with partners that use traditional video conferencing systems, or having invested a lot in such infrastructure themselves, I would still recommend going along with a Cisco based solution – as I still do not like the integration scenario very much.
For those not bound to such restrictions or needs, I truly believe that Microsoft offers the better solution between the two.