Internet-based voice and video conferencing has been a huge hit with consumers, mainly thanks to the success of Skype. However, small and medium businesses have been slower to embrace the concept of making phone calls and video calls through a browser.
Google and Microsoft are hoping that will change as businesses shift to their respective online productivity suites, both of which include free phone and video calling to other users.
The rivals are approaching the same market from different ends. Google is building a communications platform on top of its massive consumer presence in search, email and mobile devices that imitates market leader Skype.
Microsoft has democratized the previously expensive, enterprise-only application called Microsoft Office Communicator by including it in its Office 365 suite for businesses of all sizes.
Here is a table summarizing the strengths of each system. The review continues below.
Google Voice and Google Talk
Google Voice handles voice and video conferencing and Google Talk (formerly Google Chat) is Google’s instant messaging platform. Both are tightly integrated into a single interface within Gmail, appearing in a sidebar next to the main email screen as a list of Google account users displayed along with their availability status.
A fairly basic interface gives you the option to email or chat with a contact or, through a drop-down menu, to send an SMS. You have to click through to the contact page in the address book to find phone numbers, which have a little green phone icon next to them. Click on the green phone and a pop-up box shows the number and the amount of credit you have left to make the call.
Chat histories are saved into a Gmail folder, with the ability to search across all conversations. Google Talk is compatible with Apple’s iChat and AOL’s AIM platforms.
Google Voice emerged as a competitor to Skype when it launched in March 2009 and soon after began allowing calls from PCs to landlines and mobile phones. Google has given users the ability to make free calls to phone numbers in North America, at least until the end of 2011.
Google Gmail users can add credit to their Google Voice accounts to make low-cost international phone calls in a similar manner (and with similar rates) as Skype.
North American users can buy Google Voice phone numbers to receive incoming calls. Google Voice phone numbers can ring phones at several locations at once (including mobiles), send voice-to-text voicemail messages, create personalized greetings based on caller, direct calls to a specific handset based on time of day or identity of the caller, screen calls to voicemail, send SMS to email and perform conference calls.
On May 2011 US mobile-phone carrier Sprint integrated its phones with Google Voice for cheaper international calls and features such as free visual voicemail and call forwarding.
Microsoft Lync Online
At first glance Lync Online appears quite similar to Skype. However, the familiar contact list interface is considerably more powerful. It is quickly evident that Lync Online is in a different league to consumer applications such as Skype and the consumer-derived Google Voice.
Photos of contacts have a small strip down the right-hand side that changes color to indicate whether they are available, unavailable or offline. More information about their status immediately follows a contact’s name; a busy contact could show that they are on the phone, in a meeting or just “busy”.
This latter indicator is controlled by the user’s Outlook Online calendar which will automatically show a user as “in a meeting” if a meeting has been scheduled in the user’s calendar. Outlook will also show on a contact’s Lync card when the user will be able to take a call – “free at 5pm” or “free until 4pm”.
This makes the availability indicator much more accurate and thus likely to be used, which reduces the number of missed calls and lifts productivity.
Right-clicking on a contact in the main contact list gives the options of calling the contact’s land lines or mobile phone numbers, calling through Lync, or sending a voicemail.
The main interface has three tabs to list contacts by groups, their status (or availability) and by their relationship to you within the company.
The latter option shows the company hierarchy and the relationship of colleagues; useful in enterprises with many departments but overkill for all but the largest Australian businesses.
Users can be added to a chat, voice or video conversation by dragging their photos or icons from the contact list into the live-call pane. Documents can be shared by dragging them into the live pane.
The contact card shows the contact’s location – even down to the building floor, if configured correctly – their phone numbers and their position in the company.
Lync Online is integrated into all Office 365 applications; a user co-editing a document can click on their name to bring up their Lync Online contact card with all their contact information.
Users can block other Lync Online users or restrict the information that they can see, such as availability or location. The controls are quite granular, reflecting the enterprise origins of the Lync Online application.
Another killer blow is federation. Lync Online is federated not just with other Microsoft 365 users (and presumably Microsoft Office Communicator users) but also the Windows Live Messenger network which Microsoft has claimed has over 330 million users a month. Through Messenger, Lync Online users can instant message Yahoo and AOL users as well.
Microsoft has also sewn up federation deals with video-conferencing vendors using the SIP protocol such as Polycom, LifeSize and Radvision.
Both approaches show plenty of evidence of their respective origins. Google Voice has a long list of impressive features that borrow from and improve on Skype’s feature set and are very attractive to a consumer audience.
Users are likely to be more attracted to using Lync Online because, despite its enterprise origins, it has a very appealing and powerful Skype-like interface. Lync Online’s ability to determine whether someone is available to take a call or a message (their “presence”) is very smart and a huge attraction.
Add to this Lync Online’s granular, enterprise-like control and integration with other applications in Office 365 and it is clearly the better tool.
In the longer term, the interface and feature set are likely to be less important than the size of the user base. Just like the owner of the first fax machine, there’s not much point to joining a communications network if there is no-one to speak to.
Given that Microsoft has the most popular desktop productivity suite (Microsoft Office), the most popular desktop operating system (Microsoft Windows), one of the most popular instant messaging platforms (Microsoft Live Messenger) and the most popular consumer VoIP platform (it bought Skype in May 2011), it has an enormous advantage in the race to establish the largest communications network.
Google Apps and Microsoft 365 have their strengths and weaknesses in the standard applications in the productivity suite, but in communications Microsoft is a clear winner. Businesses may one day decide that, even if they are happy using Google Apps, they cannot afford to miss out on their customers and suppliers within the Lync Online network.
For a full review of Microsoft Office 365 versus Google Apps, read the buyer’s guide for cloud productivity suites here.