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Microsoft Releases Trio of Skype for Business Online Previews

With technical previews of three cloud-based Skype for Business telephony- and meeting-related capabilities made available today, Microsoft has moved one step closer to its ultimate goal of delivering a complete enterprise-scale, communications-enabled productivity stack in Office 365.

I got an overview of the technical previews, officially announced in a Microsoft blog post this morning, from BJ Haberkorn, director of Skype for Business product marketing. The previews, available to Office 365 enterprise customers in the U.S., are as follows.

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Cloud PBX with PSTN Calling
This capability brings inbound and outbound calling to Skype for Business clients in Office 365, along with typical call-control features such as hold, resume, forward, and transfer, Haberkorn said. Microsoft built out this capability using the voice technology used in Skype for Business Server and its Lync predecessor. It allows enterprises to move their voice capabilities from on-premises servers to Office 365. In the fall, Microsoft will add a configuration option that enables customers to use existing on-premises phone lines to make and receive calls through Skype for Business clients, and will make Cloud PBX available for customers worldwide.

"With Cloud PBX, and PSTN calling, once in GA, enterprises will be able to eliminate separate PBX systems," Haberkorn said.

Not that Microsoft thinks in such restrictive terms. "We don't think of this as just UC, but about communications being an integral part of the entire productivity stack -- and delivering that globally and at enterprise scale," Haberkorn said. "This is about much more than a communications piece. It's about the productivity piece."

PSTN Conferencing
With this capability, invited conference participants will be able to dial in to Skype for Business meetings in Office 365 from landlines or mobile phones. Likewise, organizers can add others to meetings by dialing out over the PSTN. As Haberkorn noted, such capabilities have been available with Skype for Business meetings but from third-party audio conference providers and not directly from Microsoft.

Skype Meeting Broadcast
First showcased at Microsoft Ignite in May as Broadcast Skype for Business Meetings, this capability gives an enterprise the ability to broadcast a Skype for Business meeting on the Internet to as many as 10,000 people. The preview is not just for U.S. customers but available to Office 365 customers worldwide, and it includes two integrations aimed at making meetings interactive even at such large scale, Haberkorn said.

The first integration is with Bing Pulse, which allows for real-time audience polling and sentiment tracking. With the sentiment tracking, attendees can use Bing Pulse to indicate in real time whether they feel positive or negative about what a speaker is saying during a broadcast meeting. And the second is with Yammer, Microsoft's enterprise social networking tool. With Yammer, meeting organizers will be able to support conversations with audience members during Skype for Business broadcasts.

Anyone who has been following Microsoft's strategy here will recognize this set of technical previews as an affirmation of the company's progress with Skype for Business in Office 365, rather than as breaking new ground. If Microsoft continues delivering on pace, each of these capabilities will be generally available this year, Haberkorn said.

Also later this year, as noted in the announcement blog post, Microsoft's strategic carrier partners will deliver direct connections to Office 365 Skype for Business customers via Azure ExpressRoute for Office 365. ExpressRoute gives enterprises the ability to establish private links between their premises and Microsoft data centers and better determine the availability, performance, reliability, and security of their cloud connections.

Microsoft does not yet have pricing or licensing plans to share for any of these capabilities, Haberkorn said. Still, the company expects interest in the previews to be high. Toward that end, it anticipates a rolling onboarding of preview participants. Office 365 enterprise customers can find more information here.

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