Skype for Business breaking the mould

The last few weeks have been extremely busy for us at CoolHarbour and to be honest I am still catching my breath. It’s an exciting time to be a Microsoft Skype for Business (SfB) partner because in the last month alone Microsoft has announced a whole raft of exciting new features that have created a huge surge in interest from our customers, partners and prospects.

Now, if you blinked, then you will most likely have missed these announcements. But don’t despair as I’ve put together a summary of these recent key announcements regarding SfB and Office 365.  But more importantly I have given you my honest take on what they mean for you if you’re a user of Skype for Business or looking into it as a replacement for your exiting unified communications or telephony system.

So here goes:

  • Cloud Connector Edition – I’ve been keeping an eye on this one ever since I first heard about it at the beginning of the year. For starters it’s designed to work with SfB Online and Office 365. If you have an existing PBX infrastructure or ITSP on Premises and would like to use it with Office 365 and SfB online, then this is the way to go for you. You no longer need a full SfB on Premises deployment in order to offer local PSTN breakout if you are an Office 365 tenant. The offering comes as a set of virtual machines which you can deploy on a Windows Server 2012 using Hyper V. There are 2 flavours, one which scales up to 1,500 concurrent calls and another with only up to 150 concurrent calls and personally even that is good enough for most companies. There are a few snags in that some features are not supported as yet, but knowing Microsoft, they are probably working away in the background trying to add support for them in the next CU (Cumulative Update) update:
    • No Response Groups
    • No Group Call Pickup
    • No Call Park
    • Cannot coexist with on premises full SfB Deployment
    • Consultative transfer is not supported
    • You cannot transfer an active call to your cell phone that is registered in your Active Directory
    • Escalation to conference from a call between a PSTN and SfB user is not possible
    • Known issue with applying dial plans to Polycom phones

Personally this is a really interesting proposition for certain types of customers with SfB Online Office 365 that are not planning to use the advanced call management features of SfB and those that cannot get Cloud PBX in their region. Well done Microsoft. Nice play for the Cloud community.

  • Two new APIs –There seems to be a buzz about two new APIs that are on the horizon and what they can offer as opportunities for developers to create mobile and web applications on top of SfB.
    • Skype for Business App SDK: This is not out yet but it promises developers the opportunity to create applications for Android and iOS which use an existing SfB deployment to power their application. The possibilities now for solutions which integrate SfB with mobile applications is pretty exciting.
    • Skype Web SDK:  This is available now and is aimed at not only SfB but also the consumer Skype product. We already know that Skype (or Skype for Desktop as its also known) and SfB share a common code base and look and feel in terms of the client. This Web API is aimed at allowing developers to create rich browser based applications with embedded Skype or SfB functionality. There are some demos of this API in action courtesy of Microsoft, but what appealed to me was that this API is not licenced separately and existing Skype for Business Server or Skype for Business Online users can work with them. Also this SDK will run in browsers that support WebRTC. (yay!)
  • Meetings Broadcast on O365 – This one has been around for the last 3 months but still it’s a pretty interesting offering. It came to Office 365 and SfB online first as part of Microsoft’s Cloud First strategy, in that all new features will appear in the cloud before they are released as updates or new releases for on premises deployments. So what is this about, well as you know the upper limit for a Web Meeting in SfB is 250 participants but this is a normal Web Conference with all parties being able to talk and collaborate at the same time. The sanity of ever creating or joining such a Web Meeting is debatable but lets face it, sometimes in large town hall meetings you just want everyone to shut up and listen to the key presenters and speakers and maybe at most post questions via chat session or respond to polls only. This is what Meeting Broadcast if for. It allows for a Web Meeting to be broadcast to up to 10,000 participants. Pretty impressive but keep in mind that you need a SfB Online or Office 365 Tennant to use this feature.
  • PSTN Conferencing in 32 countries – The PSTN Conferencing feature is now available in 32 countries for Skype for Business online and Office 365 customers to use PSTN dial in conferencing in their Meetings. You can get dial in access numbers for people in 32 countries to allow them to join your meeting on their phone. Goodbye Microsoft Live Meeting. Welcome PSTN dial in Conferencing for Skype for Business online.
  • PSTN Calling Preview – Starting from May, Skype for Business PSTN calling services will be available for preview in the UK. I have to admit a lot of our UK customers have been waiting for this and feeling rather envious of their US counterparts. Well the wait is nearly over. If you are serious about going purely to the cloud, then sign up today to trial number acquisition and assignment, inbound and outbound calling, voicemail and other features today at Skype Preview sign up page.
  • Project Rigel – Folks at Microsoft came across a statistic that 97% of all conference rooms consist of a projector or display with a conference phone for dial-in participants. Yeah, what is wrong with that? If it serves their needs then what is the problem? Well Microsoft reckons these guys are living in the dark ages and so have come up with a new initiative called Project Rigel which is aimed at bringing a Skype Meeting experience powered by Microsoft Hub to all meeting rooms with a display or projector. This is something that Microsoft are working on with their Hardware partners so expect to see offerings from Polycom, Logitech and others in due course with their devices and solutions targeted at customers at different ends of the spectrum. I haven’t seen a clear proposition as to what this will look like, but let’s hope it’s not as expensive as their older brother the Lync/SfB Room systems.
  • Mac Preview – Mac Users have been left far behind in terms of their user experience for SfB. Well the preview for SfB for Apple Mac is out and personally I can’t wait so that MAC users can finally have the same (or near same experience) in SfB as Windows users. There are no doubt going to be certain features that will still not be there and from the look of it, with this preview you still cannot upload PowerPoint presentations into a Web meeting. Lets hope the delta shrinks sufficiently to make the differences negligible.
  • And yes, Microsoft is doing ‘bots’ too.  Sigh!

Wow!  I’m sure you’ll agree that’s not bad for a month’s work!

In summary, if you are an existing SfB/O365 user, then buckle up because you’re about to embark on a journey where true flexibility, collaboration and productivity will become the norm. There is no doubt that Microsoft is breaking away from the rest of the pack with the ability to give you choice between deployment options.  And it doesn’t stop here folks, we’re expecting some more developments in the coming months that are sure to add to the already rich SfB experience, such as the unified management, reporting and analytics being made available in the second half of this year.

Finally, as ever, I would love to hear from you.  If I have missed anything out or you disagree with my assessment then I am always open to being corrected.  If you are already using some of these new features then please do share your experience with us. And if you are looking for some help with getting these features implemented then you’re at the right place. As a Silver Communications partner our team has the experience to have you taking advantage of these new features in no time.

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