Microsoft Lync update points the way toward a touch-first Office

Microsoft is bringing a new version of the Lync app to the Windows Store today that takes advantage of the new features in Windows 8.1 and catches up with the latest desktop client that came out in November.

It also adds some handy features that make calls and meetings less frustrating. You can search for contacts by typing a name in the contact view. You can change the volume of a Lync call or mute it altogether without affecting the main speaker volume for Windows -- so you can mute the hold music when you're waiting for a meeting to start without muting your music, or crank up the volume on a quiet call without having to remember to turn the sound down in Windows afterwards.

You're also more of a full participant in meetings, especially if you’re running Windows RT. Previously you couldn't jump in and take control of a shared screen when someone else was presenting unless you switched to the Lync desktop client. Now (as long as they agree) you can take over and remotely control an app or document someone else has shared. That means if you have a Surface or a Nokia 2520, you can join in the same way you can on a full Windows PC.

Lync also gets the features that make Windows Store apps more powerful on either version of Windows 8.1. Like Skype, Lync will now show incoming calls on the lock screen and let you answer them without having to unlock your PC first. That's most useful on tablets, especially the new 8-inch Windows tablets like the Dell Venue Pro and it fits with the way we're seeing Microsoft bring useful smartphone features to Windows 8.1.

With a touchscreen and the right apps, there's no reason why a Windows PC can't be as responsive and convenient to use as a smartphone.

That's another reason Microsoft isn't going to need three versions of Windows in the long run; once it adds enough smartphone-style conveniences to Windows RT and developers take advantage of them, it will make sense to have the same OS running on a 6-inch phablet and an 8-inch tablet.

For now, though, Microsoft is concentrating on getting its tablet interface to work as well on small devices as its phone interface already does, while also making the most of a larger tablet screen when you want that.

To have this kind of flexibility, apps have to use the new OS features, and that's one reason this otherwise modest update is important: The existing Windows Store versions of Lync and OneNote had fallen behind.

Most annoyingly, because Windows 8 only let you snap windows side by side in two sizes, the modern Lync app previously only had two views, one of them the 320 pixel snapped view that could only show your contacts. Even in Windows 8.1, snapping Lync so it has half the screen only gave you the same narrow view, padded out by black bars on either side. To see all the features, you had to give it at two thirds of the screen.

That was equally irritating in the OneNote app and it was only recently fixed in an update. And now the new version of Lync does the full Windows 8.1 snap; you can have a meeting and the Excel spreadsheet you're talking about taking up half the screen each so you can actually see what's going on in both. Need to give the spreadsheet a little more space? You can drag the divider to make the Lync window slightly smaller and you still see the whole meeting.

This Lync update is also a hint of the way the promised touch-first versions of Office are likely to work when we see then in 2014. Lync started as a basic app, and it's slowly getting the key features of the desktop client where those make sense on a touch-first tablet. In the same way, the touch versions of Word and Excel and PowerPoint aren't likely to have all the features of the desktop programs -- certainly not straight away.

Because Windows 8.1 automatically updates Store apps for you, you'll get the new version of the Lync app within a day (unless you've turned off app updates). That's all part of Microsoft's attempt to continuously improve Office and Windows, so that everyone is always using the latest versions and can take advantage of the latest features. Lync users will be used to regular updates as the desktop client gets new features every few months; in September that included spell checking for instant messages and the November update puts photos inside IMs (which isn't in the Store app).

Often those client updates have needed the regular updates to the Lync server, which also makes them something of a sales pitch for Office 365. Lync Online lacks many of the admin options of the on-premises version, but it gets updated to support the new client features as they come along, without you having to do anything. That's going to get more important as Microsoft starts to integrate the Office servers more closely together. Once enough businesses use Exchange and SharePoint and Lync-only features, to get all the latest features you'll have to keep your servers updated. The efficient way of doing that will be to automate your IT into a private cloud, which is what Microsoft is pushing System Centre for.

Either way, the server products the Office apps like Lync rely on aren't going to stay the same for five years the way they used to. Small changes like the new features in Lync are part of the big changes at Microsoft.

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