The days when Microsoft’s sales were limited to operating systems are over. With Lync Server 2010, Microsoft is now conquering telephony. For companies considering Microsoft’s unified communications solution now or in the future however, the key decision will be which IP phones to deploy for optimal compatibility? Based on Microsoft’s recommendations, here are my top 7 tips for choosing the best phone for your business:

1. Don’t be baffled by the range of devices on offer

When selecting the right IP phone, it’s easy to be baffled by the wide array of recommended phones provided by Microsoft. Essentially, Microsoft distinguishes between desktop phones optimised for Lync, and other compatible IP phones. All phones ‘optimised for Lync’ use the Microsoft software Lync 2010 Phone Edition so have similar operation and performance. As the software is provided exclusively by Microsoft, device manufacturers have no direct influence on the functionality of their ‘Lync-optimised’ devices.

However, this doesn’t apply to the category ‘other compatible IP phones’. These phones are ‘qualified for Lync’ and currently include only three devices, the cost-saving starter unit snom 300, the snom 370 for higher demands, and the snom 821 business phone. All three devices are based on the proven SIP stack, which makes them compatible with numerous SIP-based telephone systems and, due to their internal firmware, also with Lync.

2. Consider functional requirements

IP desktop phones are available in three device categories: common area phones, information worker devices, and phones used in conference rooms. The common area phone is a basic phone for use in public areas and in work environments that do not have PCs but require a phone. The information worker phone allows for PC integration and enables users to participate in a phone conference at the press of a button. Conference phones are primarily used independently in meeting rooms and usually come without handset, as they are specifically optimised for hands-free operation.

3. Understand the benefits and drawbacks of Lync’s Unified Communications

When used with corresponding IP phones, Microsoft Lync offers an efficient telephony solution. However, it is designed primarily for Unified Communications (UC), a platform enabling users to communicate without restriction as their work environment or task requires them to. Lync delivers:

  • Any kind of communication (instant messaging/text, voice, video, documents)
  • Any kind of use (desktop client, web, mobile phone, phone)
  • Usage independent of location and time (planned conference, or ad hoc, at the office, home office or on the go)
  • Context-based integration (Outlook and other office solutions, or with other products via an interface).

4. Understand the benefits of a device qualified for Lync

Microsoft’s ‘qualified for Lync’ programme enables experienced device manufacturers to have their products compatibility certified. At the same time, the software developer makes use of the experience and flexibility of these suppliers. With self-developed software, ‘qualified for Lync’ phones have several benefits compared to ‘optimised for Lync’ devices – from dedicated buttons for call forwarding, voicemail, call hold and “please do not disturb” over presence display on function keys to enabling users to set their own presence status on the device. Featuring dual SIP stacks, ‘qualified for Lync’ phones can be used with Microsoft Lync and any other SIP-based telephone systems – even simultaneously. This dual compatibility offers easy migration and high investment protection.

5. Keep your options open

With any hardware purchase it is important to consider the longevity of the device. Unified Communications might not be a direction your business wants to go down now but what about the future? The best IP phones on the market will support up to 12 different identities that can be combined with many different telephone systems and are therefore ideal for smooth migration to Lync. Keeping your options open eliminates the need for future investment in new devices. Having internal firmware on the phones you choose can also provide considerable benefit. Look for features such as remote configuration (also called provisioning), which makes it possible to incorporate the company logo in the display interface, or the functionality to display individual fonts and languages.

6. Independent software provides greater flexibility

One of the reasons Lync-qualified phones offer more flexibility than ‘optimised for Lync’ phones is because their software is independent and therefore capable of providing support for any network requirements, from WLAN over VPN to VLAN. For example, devices can be used as door terminals including a door opener, while EHS adapters can be used for wireless headsets. Furthermore, presence display or function keys can provide a quick overview of, or be used to contact other team members within the company.

7. Think long-term

If you decide to manage all your telephony requirements exclusively over Lync and can live without an additional IP telephone system, a ‘Lync optimised’ phone is probably the best decision. However, if you want to remain independent when purchasing new hardware you are much better off with a ‘qualified for Lync’ device. The latter gives the flexibility and interoperability of a phone with dual SIP stack while the internal firmware means any new functionality introduced can be easily obtained through the firmware update.