Microsoft announced the release candidate of Microsoft Lync, the next generation of Microsoft’s unified communications software. Lync is the new family brand for the products formerly known as Communications Server, Communications Online and Communicator, and it also now includes Lync Web App, and Lync Online.

The release candidates of Lync 2010 and Lync Server 2010 are now available for businesses of all sizes to try for free. Microsoft said this broad release candidate is the last step toward release to manufacturing and general availability scheduled for later this year.

According to the company, Lync can make every engagement a virtual face-to-face meeting, because any interaction can include video and audio conferencing, application and desktop sharing, instant messaging, and telephony.

Lync has been designed from the ground up to work with Microsoft Office, SharePoint and Exchange, which helps reduce end-user adoption hurdles and increase return on investment. People can also stay connected to others on a wide range of devices while away from the office and manage their communications and calls in new ways, such as moving a call from a PC to a mobile device while leaving the office without disrupting the conversation.

Microsoft revealed that more than 120 enterprise customers and partners are enrolled in the Microsoft Technology Adoption Program (TAP) for Lync, testing early releases and providing feedback, and over 400 unified communications partners are involved in readiness activities, preparing for general availability of the software later this year.

In addition, more than 30 partners have announced beta versions of their Lync-compatible hardware, software and service products. Hardware products include a variety of internet protocol phones and USB endpoints optimized for Lync. Software solutions include contact centers, call recording, accounting and new applications that incorporate communications right within business processes. Routing services work with Lync to allow companies to meet United States E-911 requirements for all U.S.-based workers, regardless of location.

“Over the past five years we have been on a journey to transform communications with the power of software,” said Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Unified Communications at Microsoft.

“Lync delivers on this vision by unifying enterprise voice, instant messaging and web-, audio- and videoconferencing into a new, connected communications experience,” he added.

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