Microsoft & Skype – What's Behind the Obvious?
The acquisition of Skype could have enormous implications for Microsoft. If everything works out well, Microsoft gains access to about 600 million potential users globally. What it can do with those users is up to Microsoft, but the possibilities are almost infinite.
Even without any integration or service adjustments, Skype brings close to $860 million in revenues, even though they come at a loss. With the recent service enhancements (for instance, multi-party video, enterprise voice functionality) the existing (and rapidly growing) customer base can be further monetized for revenue growth and greater profitability.
But no one expects Microsoft to pay a premium (which the $8.5 billion appears to be) to just leverage the status quo. Microsoft is likely to seek to connect businesses using its own business software and services (from Office to Outlook, Lync, SharePoint, Office 365, etc.) to all the consumers and businesses using Skype’s VoIP and collaboration services. With Microsoft’s big push into enterprise communications and collaboration with the OCS and Lync platforms, Skype nicely complements its portfolio with cloud communications capabilities – including the app, the network, DIDs, mobility, and federation with other apps and networks. Potentially, this could help Microsoft customers enhance sales and marketing reach or create new options for economic and effective collaboration between office locations and teleworkers.
Skype’s capabilities can help Microsoft re-enter the SMB voice space, which it pretty much deserted after it chose to discontinue Response Point. OCS and Lync are fairly expensive for this customer segment. Skype can also help add inexpensive VoIP alternatives for Microsoft’s cloud-based Office 365 packages.
Certainly, Microsoft can leverage this acquisition in the consumer space by linking the Skype customer base with its Windows Mobile and Xbox 360 and Kinect users or simply integrating Skype services into its gaming and mobile products. But the bigger opportunity is in bridging the consumer and business worlds. The lines between the two are blurring as the prosumer segment grows both in number of users and in terms of application and devices used for both personal and business purposes, leading to increasing consumerization of enterprise IT. Prosumers expect familiar, intuitive interfaces in their business environments and access to inexpensive communications and collaboration tools anywhere, anytime. Skype can help Microsoft deliver some of these capabilities to its business customers.
This is also a big defensive move for Microsoft – against Google as well as against the enterprise communications vendors. It is not clear how Skype’s partnerships with enterprise vendors will fare after the acquisition, but regardless of whether they survive or not, Microsoft will limit the options for others, while expanding its own. If Microsoft pushes for greater federation, this will be beneficial to everyone, both on the supply and demand side. But it will mostly help Microsoft, the new kid on the block, make friends with the existing leaders, to be able to survive and thrive. It is a little hard to believe, but it is possible that Microsoft can use Skype as the common network for all its business customers (not just those using OCS or Lync for voice) to communicate and collaborate “on-net” among each other. Imagine free calls with your suppliers, partners and customers. Of course, businesses can use Skype to do that today, but having Skype integrated into Microsoft applications is going to make the value proposition a lot more compelling. The ability to get its foot in the door with businesses using competitors’ communications systems with a service that provides clear benefits and does not require a significant capital outlay, can open tremendous opportunities for Microsoft. It will have the disruptive impact that other communications solutions and cloud-based communications services have not been able to accomplish yet.
One of the biggest questions is how Microsoft will deal with the various challenges that the merger presents. Certainly, the two cultures are very different. Also, as an Internet-based, primarily consumer service, Skype does not offer the type of SLAs businesses require. The quality of Skype communications is only as good as the available bandwidth, the quality of the access network and the processing power of the devices it’s running on. If Microsoft plans to penetrate the enterprise space with Skype communications and collaboration capabilities, it will have to make sure it only promises what it can deliver or else customer disappointment will have an irreversible negative impact on future adoption. Also, Microsoft will need to learn about managing phone numbers and handling regulatory issues related to voice services in various countries. So the bottom-line question is – with all its ambitions to leverage the cloud and to grow its real-time communications business, is Microsoft prepared to be a voice services provider?
Response Point Deserves Better
It’s only a few months after Microsoft finally put its Response Point (RP) System in the spotlight with the release of SP2 and John Frederiksen’s keynote speech at ITEXPO East in February 2009, and the wings of the entrepreneurial RP team seem to have been cut. It is clear that the latest wave of Microsoft lay-offs has impacted the RP team and some cryptic statements on the official Response Point Team Blog indicate that Microsoft wishes “to take a good look at the next version of Response Point and ensure it addresses the needs of Small Businesses.”
I contacted John Frederiksen, General Manager for Response Point at Microsoft, and he responded to my concerns with the following somewhat re-assuring comments:
The company will continue to support Response Point version 1.0.
We will continue to support our current OEMs, Service Providers and resellers that are selling Response Point version 1.0. Customers will continue to be supported through their OEMs.
We will also continue to promote the product online and spotlight compatible 3rd party services and add-on products.
The team is evaluating the strategy for the next version of the product and will continue to investigate the opportunity in the small business market.
The Response Point team has not been moved to another division.
Two years ago, when RP was still in beta trials, I thought it offered some interesting features and capabilities and I believed Microsoft was going to leverage this innovative solution to aggressively pursue the SMB customer segment as another entry point (vis-à-vis OCS) into the telephony market in general (see my article here). I did wonder if there was going to be some conflict of interest between OCS and RP and the respective teams, but ruled out that possibility assuming Microsoft had sufficient resources to support both lines of business as they seem to serve fairly distinct market segments. Today, the economic recession seems to be forcing Microsoft, not unlike other IT and communication vendors, to make tough choices. I am still unsure if the decision was made on the basis of comparing the respective potentials of OCS and RP, but RP has definitely fallen prey to Microsoft’s efforts to cut down expenses where short-term revenue and profit prospects are less certain.
Response Point Value and Market Positioning
In a more recent article discussing the release of SP2, I stated my belief that Response Point is uniquely positioned because of it features including the speech recognition capability and the Magic Blue Button (voice-controlled auto attendant and dialing), but mostly because of its ease of installation, use and management. It is as close as it gets to an affordable, plug-and-play telephony solution for small businesses, and thus in a category of its own, since most other small-business systems are neither as simple to use nor as inexpensive. Generally, it is hard to find an IP telephony platform that can provide a cost-effective communication solution for a business of less than 20 users, or a larger business with geographically dispersed sites of that size. SP2 offered some valuable enhancements such as analog phone support, intercom, VPN and multi-subnet support, an after-hours receptionist setting and more robust audio. The anticipated release of version 2.0 is supposed to make it an even more robust business-class solution that competes head-to-head with platforms offered by traditional telephony vendors such as Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya, Cisco, Nortel and Siemens.
However, what I believed was going to be Microsoft’s (not so) secret weapon in the battle for the small-business space was its extensive channel of VARs, resellers, specialists, etc. The traditional vendors use channels that have mastered the skill of marketing, implementing and managing more complex solution for medium and large businesses. Very much like the vendors themselves, these channel partners have a vested interest in pursuing larger implementations that produce greater margins and help them scale and grow more rapidly. Response Point, on the other hand, is well positioned to enable multiple Microsoft specialists and consultants to add a new revenue stream to their business and offer a more complete portfolio of business solutions to their small business customers. Response Point customers have indicated that they appreciate the features and lower cost of the solution, but their trust in Microsoft’s continued support and extensive channels represents a major factor in their decision to select Response Point versus open-source or some other less mainstream solutions. Yet Microsoft is currently failing to re-assure its channel by sharing a clear vision for the future of the Response Point system.
I talked to several RP resellers about three months ago and I was really impressed by the positive feedback. They seemed to believe that the features, though not on par with those offered by traditional vendors, were sufficient for most of their clients. A phrase that frequently came up in partners’ comments was: “This time they got it right from the start. It just works.” Also, partners appreciated the continued interaction with Microsoft allowing them to contribute to the development and addition of new capabilities that would further enhance the value of the RP system for small businesses. They were eagerly awaiting release 2.0 as the more compelling solution that would indeed enable them to compete successfully in their target market. My conversations with resellers as well as the blog entries I have read on various web sites dedicated to Response Point and Microsoft’s eco-system of partners indicate a very strong confidence in Microsoft’s ability to deliver and its commitment to this product line.
The Channel Awaits Microsoft’s Official Statement
As the rumors spread about the fate of the RP team and Microsoft delays making an official statement on the future of this products, disappointment and doubt are beginning to creep in among the partner ranks. For some of these small outfits RP had just opened up opportunities that now seem to be closing without proper notice. Not only the income, but also the reputation of these specialists and consultants is on the line since they have promised their customers a certain roadmap of product viability and evolution.
Further, partners are now having second thoughts about the quality of the Response Point system. They see more clearly some of its disadvantages in light of Microsoft’s hesitation to continue investing in further product development. Most of them continue to believe that, given continued development, this product is right for them and for their customers. Yet others are quickly beginning to look for competitive products to add to their portfolio in order to be able to sustain their competitive position in the small business communication space.
Finally, partners are now questioning the nature of their relationship with Microsoft – is Microsoft really committed to supporting its partner network or are they after quick and guaranteed profits only?
Speculations Abound at Times of Uncertainty
I saw speculations about the possibility of Microsoft integrating RP with OCS. I don’t see why they would want to do that. Microsoft can use certain elements of RP for call control with OCS if needed, but OCS is not a suitable solution for small businesses. If a business needs inexpensive telephony and/or IM client, they have other options. The value of OCS and unified communications is in their ability to integrate multiple applications from IM to voice to UM to conferencing, but in order to deploy all these capabilities, a business will need several servers with a significant price tag.
Others are speculating that Microsoft is planning to focus most of its efforts in the communication space on cloud computing and communications as a service (CaaS). I believe that Software as a Service (SaaS) and CaaS have some potential for delivering business applications and communications to SMBs. Similar to existing hosted telephony services, it alleviates all implementation and management hassles for small businesses typically lacking in-house technical expertise. However, SOHOs and very small businesses are likely to continue to prefer the least expensive consumer solutions. On the other hand, small businesses at the upper end of the range – 20 to 100 users – may actually benefit from inexpensive premise-based solutions such as Response Point.
In my opinion, Microsoft should certainly pursue profitable opportunities as that would eventually be best for both itself and its partners. I do believe, however, that Response Point has a good market potential. As I mentioned earlier, it is competing against traditional vendor platforms, many of which are just too expensive and difficult to manage for small businesses of up to 50 users. Hosted IP telephony has failed to gain much traction throughout its nearly decade-long existence, although it is touted to be a most suitable alternative for this particular market segment. Open-source telephony, on the other hand, is becoming a more viable option, especially with Digium and others focusing on developing a channel, something that was considered one of their major weaknesses so far. Consumer vendors such as Google and Skype are also vying for a piece of the SOHO and small business market and are likely to eventually gain some penetration. However, Response Point has the advantage of having been developed as a business system from the start and the channel has already been trained.
Overall, I believe that Response Point is a viable solution for the small business market. As with any technology, however, its success is largely dependent on the vendor’s execution plan, and I’ll repeat myself – “It’s all about channels”. Given the right marketing efforts, it will sell, and given the right vendor and channel support – it will thrive; without those elements, it is not going to make it on its own. The small business market continues to be under-penetrated and to offer tremendous opportunities. While the competition seems to be intensifying in this market segment, the various solutions seem to offer some distinct advantages and disadvantages thus basically catering to slightly different sub-segments. As some of Microsoft’s partners seem to believe, more extensive marketing efforts may be needed (TV commercials, end-user webinars, etc.) with a strong marketing message that clearly identifies the benefits of Response Point in order for Microsoft and its partners to be able to keep Response Point sales afloat in this challenging economy.
Think Ahead When Selecting Your Network UC Infrastructure Solution
As we tried to (re)define SaaS and evaluate how different enterprise applications fit into this model, we assessed the different UC platforms from a SaaS point of view.
As I have previosuly stated, given the interoperability challenges when integrating disparate applications into an end-to-end unified communications solution, a pre-integrated service package offered on a hosted/SaaS basis provides great value to business users. But how flexible are service provider application platforms for a SaaS model given that most businesses have some existing premise-based infrastructure? And is SaaS really a panacea for the ailing communications market?
Let’s start by saying that, according to my colleague Melanie Turek (please see her post on SaaS – Enterprise 2.0 Blog » Melanie Turek, as well as Software as a Service: Everything Old is New Again), the SaaS story actually dates back to the dot.com era and the hype around the ASP model. In the old days, most hosted platforms were as monolithic as premise-based solutions which gave little chance to service providers to add more value to the service or differentiate. Today, it is still difficult to figure out to what extent different hosted IP services can also be considered SaaS. SaaS and hosted services bear a lot of similarities; yet, SaaS implies Web-based applications and also the ability of the service provider to manipulate, manage, upgrade, etc. the applications and fully control the back end of the platform in order to provide flexible services to its customers.
Open (understandably, somewhat of an arbitrary term), SIP-based platforms are opening up new opportunities for service providers today. Looking at the IP hosted telephony space, we can see that several of the service providers deploying a BroadSoft platform (including former General Bandwidth/Tekelec/VocalData and Sylantro solutions) have enhanced their service offerings by adding their own applications and improving the backend capabilities for faster and easier quotes, provisioning and service management. Some of the hosted IP telephony providers such as CallTower, Cypress Communications, Engage Incorporated, M5, Smoothstone, Vantage Communications and others have sought to deliver various communication and business applications (telephony, call control/contact center applications, chat/presence, etc., CRM) packaged in a SaaS/CaaS (Communications as a Service) manner.
BroadSoft is opening up its APIs for mashups and the potential integration of its voice communication platform with other applications for the delivery of more comprehensive service packages from the “cloud”. Not long ago it enabled the integration of services delivered on the BroadWorks platfrom with salesforce.com. More recently, LightEdge introduced a hosted UC package based on BroadSoft’s telephony platform and OCS, which shows that there exists a viable opportunity for service providers deploying BroadSoft solutions to expand their offerings with UC capabilities.
As mentioned in a previous post, UC platforms such as OCS and MCS currently used by CallTower and Cypress Communications, the two hosted UC leaders today, do not scale easily to multi-vendor PBX environments, which has pre-determined these providers’ business models whereby they offer a full package of telephony, VM/UM + chat/presence/UC + conferencing capabilities to their customers. This model certainly has its value and benefits to both the providers and their customers, however, it limits the overall target audience to those customers that do not have PBXs.
Cypress Communications, well ahead of everyone else with over 10,000 hosted UC seats today, claims that its Nortel infrastructure – MCS5200 and CS2000 – is one of the best solutions for delivering hosted communications to businesses. CS2000 is a scalable, robust, feature-rich platform that provides all the enterprise telephony capabilities required by business users. MCS52000, on the other hand, is one of the leading UC platforms available on the market today. I would like to point out, however, that Cypress Communications has been able to successfully leverage the capabilities of these platforms to grow its hosted UC base because of its ability to support the service all the way to the desktop including the router and the LAN switch.
CallTower, on the other hand, has experienced slower growth with its hosted telephony offering based on a Cisco UC Manager, but is looking to accelerate sales with a more comprehensive hosted UC package including network-based OCS. Going forward, CallTower is planning to leverage OCS for telephony as well.
There is a third company offering hosted UC and it’s probably the very first company that tapped into this opportunity four years ago – Engage Incorporated. Engage uses Siemens’ OpenScape to deliver voice as well as a number of other communication applications to its customers on a SaaS basis. Engage has had somewhat of a limited success as it has so far tried to bundle communications with other business applications – CRM, ERP, etc. – delivered as SaaS. OpenScape provides it with a unique competitive advantage, however, as it integrates with any PBX, any IM/chat client and any other vendor’s applications. It is one of the most open technologies available on the market today and is uniquely positioned as it does not seek to replace existing telephony or IM solutions but rather acts as the glue that converts disparate applications into a comprehensive unified communications environment.
While most service providers currently involved or considering hosted UC options already have some hosted/SaaS offerings – some started with email, others with telephony, yet others with CRM, etc. – going forward, hosted UC will provide an attractive revenue opportunity for telcos, VARs, etc., that do not yet have any hosted apps in their portfolio. Such providers may wish to consider OpenScape UC as it can enable them to integrate with multiple different premise-based infrastructure environments. Further, HiPath 8000 (OpenScape Voice) can enhance such service provider offerings with a telephony option as well. Developed from a softswitch and providing a robust PBX feature set, it provides a competitive alternative to existing hosted telephony platforms.
Siemens has long claimed to be striving to become a services company and with its open communications approach it seems well positioned to become one of the leading CaaS providers. Partnerships are going to be critical for its success in that space.
SaaS, and communications as a service, in particular, is not a panacea, neither today in the economic downturn, nor in the long term. It does offer a growth opportunity for service providers, however, and a viable option for businesses to test and trial new technologies and applications. Selecting the right platform from the start is going to determine each provider’s success in this space. Therefore, decision makers need to evaluate not only the existing platforms and their capabilities, but also each vendor’s vision and roadmap in order to make the right choice.