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Microsoft Outlines Skype for Business Plans at Ignite

Microsoft said that the Microsoft Teams client will eventually replace the Skype for Business Online client in the near future.

Earlier this month, leaks from Microsoft had suggested that Microsoft Teams would become more than just an Office 365 collaboration workspace for conversations and contacts. It would also get the voice-over-IP capabilities of Skype for Business Online to enable phone calls, as well as meetings capabilities.

Today, those ideas were confirmed by Lori Wright, general manager for Microsoft Teams and Skype product marketing. In an announcement, she outlined Microsoft's vision for Teams as a more refined "intelligent communications" solution compared with Skype for Business, which is Microsoft's Office 365 unified messaging service for voice, video, chat and presence.

Wright also moderated a Microsoft Ignite session on Monday that provided more details about those roadmap plans, titled "Microsoft 365: Transform your communications with Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business" (which is available on demand here). The session included information about how IT organizations might be affected by the general transition toward Microsoft Teams.

Microsoft's main announcements today included:

  • The Microsoft Teams client will eventually replace the Skype for Business client
  • The two clients currently are interoperable, with common presence, messaging and calling capabilities
  • The Microsoft Teams client now has audio conferencing capabilities at the preview stage
  • The Microsoft Teams client will be getting additional calling features in the coming months, including "inbound and outbound calls to PSTN numbers, hold, call transfer, and voicemail"
  • Intelligent communications is more useful than unified communications
  • The Skype for Business Online service and the Skype for Business Server product will continue to be supported by Microsoft
  • A new Skype for Business Server product is expected in the second half of 2018
  • The transition to Microsoft Teams won't necessarily be burdensome for IT organizations because it's possible to run Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams concurrently

Microsoft also offered an indication of progress for Teams. Wright said that in less than six months since its release, Microsoft Teams has been used by 125,000 organizations worldwide.

Intelligent Communications
In the talk, Wright claimed that advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning were leading to technologies beyond traditional unified communications. She defined this next technology as intelligent communications. It'll be a technology that can maintain the full context of meetings, with no language, visual or hearing barriers. After a meeting, it can send a meeting summary with action items, she said.

To achieve this vision, Skype is becoming the backend cloud infrastructure powering Microsoft Teams. Microsoft is taking the capabilities in Skype for Business and combining it with Teams for one client experience. Wright added that the Skype for Business client will go away over time.

The session included a demo of Microsoft Teams, highlighting its extensibility to add access to Microsoft and "third-party" applications, such as adding Survey Monkey or Adobe Crowd Access apps, using the Tabs feature. The Tabs feature also enables the addition of chat bots. The addition of apps doesn't compromise security, it was claimed.

The Contents Tab of the Microsoft Teams client will be able to import conversation content on Day 1, according to Marc Pottier, a principal lead program manager at Microsoft, during the Ignite session. It used to be that presence was different between Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business, but Microsoft has combined that functionality, he added.

Organizations can use the Call interface in the Microsoft Teams client to create a speed-dial list of contacts or they can get an overall alphabetical list of contacts, as well as a call history. Voicemail gets pulled from Exchange, Pottier added. Microsoft Teams has an enterprise voice feature that makes it a single application to do all of a person's calling and collaboration, he added.

Meetings can be scheduled via Outlook, if wanted, and they can be joined using any mobile device. Microsoft also wanted to create a mechanism to capture all of the content in a meeting event, so Microsoft Teams is getting an "access recording" feature. The recording will appear in the particular Teams conversational channel. The content of the meeting gets stored in the cloud and is automatically closed captioned. Users also get access to a full transcription of the meeting. They can search for a keyword and then jump to a part of video where that word was uttered. The idea is that users can catch up on meetings if they missed them, Pottier explained.

Pottier added that all of the features he showed were either in the Microsoft Teams product currently or were at the preview stage.

Skype for Business Server and Transitioning
The move from the Skype for Business to the Microsoft Teams typically elicits three questions from organizations. People want to know how the switch will affect Skype for Business Server. They want to know if Microsoft Teams is ready for use by their company. Lastly, they want to hear how Microsoft will help with the transition, said Bob Davis, corporate vice president of Office 356, during the Ignite session. Davis earlier served as part of Microsoft's IT team, and also was "one of the founders of Office 365," he said.

The answers to those questions were then outlined by Ben Canning, director of program management for Skype and Teams, during the Ignite talk. He said that Microsoft is just as committed to the next Skype for Business Server as the organizations currently using Skype for Business Server products. The next Skype for Business Server product is targeted for "Q4 of next calendar year," Canning said.  He added that Microsoft also plans to refresh the Skype for Business client at that time. Microsoft expects some organizations will want to house their voice communications on their own premises, he added, so Microsoft is supporting the server product.  

Canning claimed that Microsoft Teams is ready for use now by organizations. It's built from the ground up on Office 365 and supports mobile access with conditional access security and mobile application management. It delivers persistent chat and has a retention policy for communications, including e-discovery and audit capabilities. Events are journaled and logged from across SharePoint, Exchange, OneDrive and others, he added.

IT pros will be getting a new Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business Admin Center portal for management purposes. It'll have tools such as Call Analytics and Call Diagnostics, Pottier indicated.

Calling information won't change for the organizations that invested in Microsoft's Calling Plan, Canning said. Existing Skype for Business phone devices will continue to work, he added.

Organizations can run Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business side by side, Canning said, adding that it's "a great way to roll out Teams in your organization." Organizations can have some users on Microsoft Teams and some users on Skype for Business. IT pros have control over when Microsoft Teams gets rolled out, and there's no lengthy migration or weekend downtime necessary, he added.

Microsoft also announced a new Skype Room Systems partner building Skype for Business conferencing devices. Lenovo plans to produce a new Skype Room Systems device, called "Smart Hub 500," which will be coming in "early 2018," Canning said. Skype Room Systems products are also currently available for preorders from Crestron, Logitech and Polycom. Also coming are "cloud video interop capabilities" within Microsoft Teams provided by Blue Jeans Networks, Pexip and Polycom, according to Microsoft's announcement.

Microsoft Teams includes a T-Bot for training end users. They can ask it how to chat, for instance. The T-Bot gets smarter over time, Canning claimed.

To get organizations going, Microsoft launched a new FastTrack website today. It's at aka.ms/skypeandteams.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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