AT&T Phones a Friend in Microsoft to Target Businesses

Photograph by Bernhard Lang

AT&T and Microsoft are joining forces in the hopes of reaching more business customers.

Skype was once the great threat to AT&T’s conventional phone system, with the carrier even banning it for a time from some of its mobile phones. Now, AT&T is hoping to use Lync, a unit of Skype’s Internet calling services, as a way to lure corporate customers to its network.

AT&T said today that it will sell an expanded menu of communication services that includes Microsoft’s Lync, an enterprise-software package with instant messaging and calling tools. Lync was recently added to the Microsoft unit that includes Skype, which the software giant bought in 2011 for $8.5 billion. AT&T’s partnership with Microsoft, which involves revenue sharing between the two companies, isn’t exclusive, said Andy Geisse, head of the Dallas-based telecom’s business-solutions unit.

The move is another example of AT&T’s inclination to partner with industry leaders in order to attract more business clients, even if that involves amending an old rivalry. AT&T and International Business Machines teamed up in October to sell cloud services, and AT&T and Akamai Technologies joined forces in December to sell content delivery to corporate clients.

“We can’t solve every problem,” said Geisse. “So we built an open platform that people can plug into.”

For Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft, AT&T could give Lync a much-needed boost. Microsoft said last month that Lync’s most expensive version had 5 million users, up from 3 million at the end of 2011. Lync competes with Internet calling services from Cisco Systems and Polycom.

In 1999, Cisco Chief Executive Officer John Chambers said at an industry gathering that in the future, calling will be such a small business thanks to the Internet that carriers will “give it away for free.” That may be true, but many companies have been willing to pay for calling services that are tightly integrated with powerful corporate tools.

With deals like this one between AT&T and Microsoft, the office phone may be seeing a revival of sorts.

–With assistance from Dina Bass

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