When we last tested Lync Online the tool ranked 15th in our comparison of online meeting solutions. Back then the software had just passed the Beta phase so we wanted to now see how the online collaboration tool had been advanced over time.
Our first finding: Lync Online is not meant to be used as a standalone self-service web conferencing solution and setting it up requires substantial IT expertise. It may sound unproblematic that you need to open and configure your "personal" Office 365 cloud instance to run Lync Online, but we find Office 365 to be a very complex SaaS platform – at least for those of us who are not IT professionals or well-trained Microsoft partners. So why did Microsoft replace their easy-to-setup Office LiveMeeting solution with a solution which forces end-users to rely on IT professionals, before they can start to use it? Why did they tie Lync Online to Office 365? This makes sense if you consider what we understand to be Microsoft’s goals for Office 365:
- Sell Lync Online along with Sharepoint Online and Exchange Online as hosted solutions to small to medium sized businesses for whom the server versions of Exchange and Sharepoint are too expensive or complex to install and administer.
- Use its dominance on the PC desktop and Windows server to promote unified communications as USP of its web conferencing solution to enterprise customers.
If you look at our test approach you will find that Lync Online doesn’t really fit in with the other tools we have tested and evaluated since we have a different focus. One of our selection criteria for online meeting solutions is that no IT support is necessary, i.e. that solutions can be set up by anyone with a couple of clicks. But setting aside the setup aspect we still wanted to know how the tool performs and set it up and configured it for our purposes. In doing this we basically had two choices of setup scenarios. We either could host our emails with Exchange Online to be able to use Lync’s Outlook functionality or we could integrate our own email domain via “federation” in Office 365.
Without knowing how to change name server settings to link your organization's domain into Office 365 you are lost. If you want to integrate an existing domain into Office 365 without having all domain services (esp. email) transferred the online help provides a confusing set of help documents, not organized along the setup workflow at all. But again, this is simply due to the fact that we were trying to setup Lync Online in a way it is probably not intended for. To set up Lync Online without being integrated into a larger corporate network requires an experienced IT administrator and even for them it is no piece of cake. And it takes a while to get everything up and running since altering domain settings is a matter of days.
Eventually we did manage to get everything set up and conducted our usual tests. We tried to get a meeting going between a host who has an Office 365-based Lync Online user account and an external party with nothing preinstalled thus checking the functionality of the Lync web client. We discovered that the front end isn’t very user friendly. E.g. when the host shares his screen the participant needs to select “show stage” from the share-menu to be able to see it which is not very intuitive. The menus as a whole are not arranged too well and things we consider simple such as changing presenters are more complicated than they need to be.
Lync Online does offer most of the functionalities we expect from a good online collaboration solution, however. You can share your desktop or single apps, upload images and presentations and use the whiteboard functionality. Chatting with other participants is also possible, although if you are not within the same network as all other participants there is no private chat available. When using only the web client video is not supported. External users rather need to download the attendee app, which then gives them full functionality.
So what did we walk away with from our tests? The most basic observation is that Lync Online has its strengths in a unified communications scenario within an organization’s IT infrastructure which aims to seamlessly integrate audio, video and web conferencing, instant messaging and document management. To use it as a standalone solution for web conferences with external participants does not really pay off if you consider the high installation effort and configuration of the solution which requires expert help.
Next to the complexity of setup the sheer time that passes between registering and being ready to go is too long. It takes days to have all the necessary DNS changes in place which is a stark contrast to the few minutes it takes to get going with other tools and the easy one-click setups many of them offer. When testing the Beta version we had outsourced the setup to an IT expert so that we could focus on the functionalities of the solution. We got the feedback that setting up the tool for our purposes was rather complex and decided not to let this influence the ranking of the tool then. Now, with the new version, the setup factors into the overall performance review and as a consequence Lync Online moves down in our ranking, from position 15 to 22.
As a comparison, Microsoft’s Office Live Meeting 2007, which has already phased out is ranked much higher since it is a sleek and easy to use tool that can be utilized outside a company’s IT-infrastructure for convenient online collaboration.