Imagine not having to listen to voicemail messages any longer, or having a transparent view into colleagues’ availability status so you don’t have to wonder if they’re free to talk. Lync 2010 , the latest iteration of Microsoft’s unified communications  platform, has the potential to change the way workers at small- and medium-size companies interact, collaborate and stay in touch. It might even replace their IP PBX systems down the road, industry observers say.
With UC, users can see one another’s presence and availability status and engage in instant messaging, voice, audio conferencing, web conferencing, video conferencing and collaboration-enabled shared workspaces, among other capabilities.
Released in November, the new technology in Lync 2010 gives users the ability to accelerate their business processes, says E. Brent Kelly, a senior analyst and partner at consultancy Wainhouse Research. He notes that IT departments can tightly integrate Lync 2010 with other Microsoft wares to provide a compelling system.
The market had been waiting for this particular iteration of Microsoft UC because it’s more of a standalone telephony platform with enhanced features and capabilities, says Rich Costello, a senior analyst for enterprise communications infrastructure at IDC. “The caveat is you have to have the Microsoft infrastructure to run Lync, and that can be a pretty significant investment,” he says. But he adds that Lync costs about half that of a PBX system.
UC competitors include Cisco Unified Personal Communicator , IBM Lotus Sametime , and products from Alcatel-Lucent and Avaya that are layered on top of their core PBX systems, Costello says. “Microsoft and IBM come at this from a software-centric point of view with IM presence engines, and they have expanded that to conferencing and other collaborative capabilities.”
Lync 2010 supports Enhanced 911  for the first time and also has Call Admission Control, which puts a priority on voice, says Costello. It also adds a Survivable Branch Appliance, which lets companies connect smaller remote sites to provide resiliency.
When Lync is integrated with a phone system, a user can see when another internal user is on the phone. The software can also be integrated with a user’s calendar. Those who don’t have Lync can still integrate their instant messaging information with a third party so others can view presence information and check their status.
A Windows mobile version of Lync allows users to receive instant messages while they are on the go, offering “a flexible way to reach out to people wherever they may be,” Kelly says. Instead of having to dial a number, users can “click-to-call” by selecting a contact’s name.
To take advantage of all of Lync’s features, an organization will need many servers, Kelly notes. To determine server capacity, a company will need to consider whether remote users will be on the system; how complex the company’s needs are; and what redundancy/backup plans are in place.
Lync does not support the Internet Engineering Task Force’s Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol  for IM and chat, Costello points out. Another potential drawback is that its architecture and components can be complex. “As such, it is not appropriate for smaller organizations that do not have full-time, Microsoft-savvy IT staff,” he says.