Lync links to Skype, but not for video yet

The forthcoming release of a major new version of Microsoft's Lync unified communications software will see it “federated” with the Skype voice and video conferencing service that is popularly used for telehealth provision in Australia.

While Microsoft has not disclosed a specific date for the release of Lync 2013, it did release a preview in July announcing the integration – or federation as it is known – with Skype, which Microsoft bought for $US8.5 billion in 2011.

Figures for telehealth-specific Skype users are not available, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is the most popular choice for general practitioners and specialists offering telehealth services in Australia.

Nathan Chapman, chief technology officer with unified communications (UC) specialist Generation-e, said while Lync users will be able to share presence, instant messaging and audio calls with Skype users, it was not yet certain when video conferencing federation will be achieved.

“That is going to be the big thing and that is where [Microsoft wants] to be going, but it seems like they have not had the time to get all of the functionality [into the 2013 release],” Mr Chapman said.

“Lync has a quarterly update cycle … so it is possible that Skype video could come as a cumulative update in one of those quarterly releases, or it might be in one of the major releases in another couple of years. They have made it clear that that is direction they are going but they have had a lot of work to do with Skype as it was a very proprietary system to get integrated.”

Mr Chapman said telehealth is now a growing part of Generation-e's business, particularly since the introduction of the federal government's telehealth incentives program last year.

“We are seeing people coming to us saying they have this funding and wanting to know what technology to spend that on,” he said. “We've also been working with Medicare Locals on deploying UC as a collaboration tool within Medicare Locals to improve collaboration between the different health agencies and care providers.”

Generation-e this year provided a telehealth system for the Lynden Aged Care facility in Melbourne, using Lync Online, the cloud-based version of Lync that comes with the Office 365 cloud service. Lync Online costs as little as $3.20 per user per month and according to Mr Chapman, offers better video quality than Skype due to the high-quality video codecs Microsoft Lync uses.

The various state, federal and organisational guidelines around what technology to use for telehealth provision don't specify what hardware or software health providers should use, but they do recommend that they be standards-based.

“Some seem to have assumed that hardware-based video conferencing systems is what you had to have for diagnostic-quality video but that's not necessarily the case these days with the software-based solutions available,” Mr Chapman said.

“It may be a matter of taking a software-based solution and integrating that with good hardware, but with hardware these days you have a choice of what to use and it doesn't have to be an expensive telepresence solution to get really good quality.”

He said that while Lync has some proprietary features it is standards-based and has been designed on an open framework to allow other vendors to interoperate with it. “For standards-based video, interoperability is a challenge because there are so many variations and unless you have a program that can prove the quality of the interop you can get in trouble with features that aren't going to work properly.”

Lync's federation with Skype will mean that Lync users will be able to openly communicate through IM or voice with Skype users, of which there are an estimated 400 million worldwide.

“The first step of that will be in 2013 when there will be federation into the messaging and presence so I can see someone is online and I can chat to them by IM, and I can also do an audio call as well,” he said. “I can do a call between Lync in a health environment or a business environment and someone at home or in a small business who is using Skype.”

Also due in the Lync 2013 is an updated version of the current web app that will allow users to communicate with non-Lync users through a web browser.

“You'll be able to send an invitation out to someone external to your organisation that has never seen or heard of Lync before,” Mr Chapman said. “With the 2013 Lync web app they'll be able to join a Lync conference with audio and video and desktop sharing and all of the modalities of UC from a web browser on a PC or a Mac. [Microsoft has] listed a number of browser and operating system combinations like Chrome and Safari that will be supported as well as Internet Explorer.

“In the current version you can't do it through the web browser – you have to download and install some applications and there wasn't a good way to handle it on Macs. There is also going to be a Lync client that is optimised for the touch interface in Windows 8. They will also have support for iOS for Apple and Android devices as well as Windows phones.”

Posted in Australian eHealth

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