Skype for Business at Ignite: How close are they to delivering ‘move all your communications to Skype for Business Online’

This is quite a long article, this is largely due to the fact that Microsoft managed to pack a great deal into Ignite related to Skype for Business, I’ve broken the article into five sections.

  1. Skype for Business Loves Apple
  2. Skype Voice Online
  3. Skype Room Systems
  4. Skype Broadcast
  5. Underlying Messages from the Conference

Skype for Business Loves Apple

  • New Mac Client – generally available in October.

Don’t expect the Mac client to be the completely finished article in October as Microsoft plan further updates in 2016 and Q1 2017. The good news is that while not entirely feature complete it is no longer a poor Windows imitation. The Mac client is the new user interface (UI) lead for the Skype for Business product.

Watch out for a key element required in the new client UI. The new UI uses the existing IM conversation history feature which is currently hidden in the Windows Skype for Business client but it is brought out front and center in the new UI. Many large organisations have IM conversation history disabled at the request of their compliance office so if you do see a large blanck area in the new client UI it is almost certainly due to IM conversation history being disabled by policy.

  • Callkit 10 – Integrated calling comes to iOS

I’m glad to see Microsoft developing the Skype for Business app quickly to take advantage of Apple’s Callkit. This now removes the need to unlock the phone to take a Skype for Business call. Calls are also integrated into the native iPhone call screen. We still need to check that the iOS app doesn’t consume too much iPhone battery during day to day operation but the stated vision is clear, the iPhone app can replace a standard desk phone with the integrated capability. Again this needs testing thoroughly within a real world environment.

I believe the iPhone app will be updated in October to support Callkit. No word if there are any other changes to the client to match the Mac UI.

Skype Voice – Hosted by Microsoft

All those within the industry know that the Skype for Business team are focused on delivering feature parity between Skype for Business Online and on premise. The largest gaps have been the ability to provide a voice replacement PBX/phone and the ability to home users onto their closest region to support conferencing. Typically a large enterprise will have data centers in each of their major regions and users are homed on their closest region to host their Skype conferences. This helps reduce network latency and maintains a good conference performance. For example if three users are having a Skype conference in the UK but their Skype conference is hosted in Singapore there is a danger that network latency may impact the call. In the standard Office 365 service the ability to home users to their local region has not been possible until later this year, leaving businesses with no choice but to host Skype conferences with potentially large network latency. When Microsoft enable the ability to home a user onto their closest Microsoft data center it will almost certainly give Online an advantage over an on premise deployment. Online will have more available data centers than any single enterprise deployment and therefore likely to be closer to a user. The devil may be in the detail however so let’s wait and see what the Preview delivers in 2016.

  • Regionally Hosted Meetings

Here are where you can host users during Q4: Dublin, Amsterdam, (UK coming soon but after Q4), Washington, Chicago, Texas, Indianapolis, Quebec, Toronto, (no plans for South America yet), Pune, Chennai, Osaka, Saitama, Hong Kong, Singapore, (South Korea coming soon but after Q4) New South Wales and Victoria. Please note Germany and China are not included and there are no plans to include these in the options. This is due to the fact that the data centers and Office 365 service are not fully managed by Microsoft but via a third party arrangement (which for what it is worth is to protect Microsoft and its customers from US government data requests).

  • PSTN conferencing

Microsoft now provide 90 countries and 400 cities for the PSTN conferencing service. There are restrictions however on where you consume the Office 365 license. China and India for example have a local dial in number available to use for global users but you can not yet currently purchase a PSTN conference licence for a user in several countries including China and India.

  • Voice in France and Spain

Inbound and outbound telephony is now available in the UK, US and Puerto Rico. Spain and France are to be added in Q4 2016 with the promise of more to come in 2017.

  • Reporting – Enter UC Commander or Event Zero as it was known

A number of early on premise voice adopters needed to deploy additional reporting services on top of the Quality of Experience servers which have been a part of deployments since OCS. While the QoE servers provided an excellent back end system to collect data on call records and quality the front end did not meet the needs of the teams supporting users as it often took several hours to gather information on poor quality calls. The ‘single pane of glass’ view is effectively a web overlay of QoE with many useful graphs and charts on a user and infrastructure level and can be found within minutes rather than hours.

Skype for Business and Video Rooms

Microsoft are pushing hard on the supposed 97% of meeting rooms that have no technology in them with Project Rigel moving to the mainstream and re-branded as Skype Room Systems. In addition Polycom also announced their Cloud Bridging solution as an option within Office 365 which provides the ability to bring in standard based Video Conferencing rooms into Skype for Business meetings. A capability only available today on premise with a separate bridging solution bought from Acano, Pexip or Polycom.

  • Cloud bridging within Office 365

I would like to see this in operation before commenting too much on this capability but the theory looks impressive. You assign a Cloud Interop licences to a user within the Office 365 admin portal which will enable an additional element of the Skype for Business meeting signature with the details for the VC room systems to dial in to. The technical specification seems to be impressive with multi-protocol call control with gateway: H.323, SIP, WebRTC, TelePresence (3 screen systems) Protocols.

One interesting element to note for on premise customers. The manipulation of the signature for VC support is a new element of the standard Skype for Business meeting signature. I wonder if this capability will be enabled on the on premise service for those clients who wish to stay on premise for their Skype for Business and VC Rooms.

  • New Skype Room hardware

This was one of the less impressive elements of the presentation.  Logitech, Polycom and Creston released new Skype Room Systems but I don’t see any significant advantage over and above the older Lync Room Systems which after an initial wave of enthusiasm have sunk into relative obscurity. I still have issues with the audio and video quality of these rooms and even in the demonstration at least two of the vendors came into the meeting with poor audio. This may have just been a local issue related to conference halls but it is consistent with what I hear from these types of devices. There are also questions over where the camera sits within the room and how all the pieces of technology are managed. I’d like to know how many Skype Rooms Microsoft will deploy to 97% of their own meeting rooms.

Skype Broadcast

MS continue to develop Skype Broadcast and their latest feature release is the addition of foreign language captions to the Broadcast meeting. This capability was developed in Microsoft Research and it is great to see it come into a general available product. Initially there are 5-8 languages but the plan will be to move to 50. For the future (although Microsoft have delivered no details) I’d expect to see this capability extended from captions to voice transcription.

Underlying Messages

  •  On premise continues to be the poor second child…but still has the largest customers

Absolutely no mention of on premise in the keynote and the title of Gurdeep’s key note sends another clear message ‘Move all your communications to Skype for Business Online’. It does not necessarily mean on premise software will not receive the additional capabilities but it is clear from Microsoft where the direction of travel is.

The Skype team were keen to highlight Accenture as a model Skype for Business organisation. The numbers were very impressive but I’m almost certain they are all delivered on premise. Perhaps when Accenture move their on premise estate to Online then we know that Online is ready for all organisations.

  • No mention of Skype Teams

Gurdeep’s keynote was rammed full of information and Microsoft had some clear messages they wanted to send out to the wider world. Skype Teams if it is to be a Slack killer requires and deserves an independent announcement and session. The leak a few weeks ago around the existence of Skype Teams was almost certainly deemed enough for now by the Skype team (how do you think MSPoweruser got the story?) to put a bookmark in for later this year.

  • Goodbye to Gurdeep

It was interesting to note that after the key note Gurdeep has left his leadership role at Skype. Zig Serafin is also moving on from the Skype leadership team. We don’t know why and are unlikely to find out the real reason (good or bad) but it is a shame to see Gurdeep go. He was one of the founding members of a small team in Microsoft who led the Real Time Communication challenge laid down directly by Bill Gates. He is certainly leaving a significant legacy which has seen Microsoft grow from a niche player to one of the dominant players in the unified communications industry today. I hope the new management appreciate his vision and build on it quickly.