Showtime for Skype for Business Online

Microsoft kicked off its second-annual Ignite conference yesterday in Atlanta with lots of talk about mobile-first cloud-enabled digital transformation, a host of security-, intelligence-, and cloud-related announcements for the here and now, and a deep think about future "magical technologies" and the democratization of artificial intelligence so that "every person, and every institution that people build ... can go on to solve the most pressing problems of our society and of our economy," as CEO Satya Nadella shared in an innovation keynote.

Gurdeep Singh Pall at Ignite

I'll leave Nadella's vision of a better world through AI for another day, and focus here instead on the more mundane stuff of concern to enterprise IT professionals charting communications and collaboration strategies for their organizations. In an opening session on Skype for Business, Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate VP of Skype, walked attendees through the latest Microsoft has to offer in cloud communications. The announcements and demos covered a variety of capabilities, including audio conferencing, mobile UC, and video conferencing, and are also summarized by the Office 365 team in a blog post, "Move all your communications to Skype for Business Online."

Following the session I had the chance to sit down with Andrew Sinclair, GM of Skype and Skype for Business product marketing, for a recap. First and foremost, Sinclair wanted me to know, the news for the No Jitter audience is that everything Microsoft announced at the March Enterprise Connect conference in regards to Skype for Business, it's delivered on (see related articles, "Microsoft, Avaya Aim Sky High" and "Microsoft Grooms Skype for Business for Rooms"). Secondly, he wanted to be sure I understood that Skype for Business in the cloud is very real -- "it's ready, it's massive, it's global," he said, following up with a variety of proof points.

Global Calling
At Ignite, for instance, Microsoft announced that it has expanded PSTN Conferencing's reach into an additional 17 countries in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, and Europe. With these latest additions, available as part of the E5 licensing suite, people can now join Skype for Business meetings using local numbers from 90 countries and 400 cities, Sinclair said. That makes Microsoft as far-reaching an audio conferencing service provider as any other out there, he added.

In addition, Microsoft continues to expand the numbering options for global users. Default city numbers are now available to all Office 365 customers, and Office 365 administrators can now select dedicated toll numbers or toll-free numbers in hundreds of cities worldwide. And, starting next month, Skype for Business customers in France and Spain can get PSTN Calling in preview mode, adding to the U.S., U.K. and Puerto Rico, where the service is already generally available.

Lastly, in what Sinclair called a "little bit of a techie feature" enabled by a single line of code, Microsoft is giving Office 365 administrators a way to home Skype for Business meeting participants in the regional data centers nearest to their physical locations. This capability, due by year's end, replaces the need to provision all conferencing from data centers in the U.S. or U.K., Sinclair said. Local provisioning means reduced latency and better quality, as well as the means to meet data sovereignty requirements.

User Flexibility
Yes, Microsoft has acknowledged, some enterprise organizations do want to support Skype for Business on Macs, as well as on iOS devices -- and it is committed to making those experiences all the better. In October, Microsoft plans to release the new Skype for Business for Mac client, written from scratch using Apple's Swift programming language. The client will support HD audio and video, plus allow users to join meetings with one click.

On the mobile side, Microsoft has announced Skype for Business integration with Apple's recently released CallKit API. Via the integration, the Skype for Business client takes over the native dialer -- no more having to leave the UC client and open the Apple calling app to place calls. With native dialer access, Sinclair said he sees the mobile phone now really being able to replace the desktop phone. "Think about the savings, and the convenience," he said. "This is about having UC everywhere."

In another, but unrelated, announcement concerning an improved user experience, Microsoft said it will release a preview of real-time transcription and translation, via live closed-captioning, in Skype Meeting Broadcast. The preview, due by year's end, will initially support spoken English, Spanish, Simplified Chinese and German, with additional languages added in during the preview.

Next-Gen Meeting Rooms
No Jitter readers who attended Enterprise Connect 2016 may remember talk of "Project Rigel," the codename for the next generation of meeting room capabilities previewed by Zig Serafin, corporate VP of Skype Business Services, during his keynote. A major new initiative, he said at the time, Project Rigel aimed to make Skype the "start button" in meeting rooms, bringing a touchscreen, interactive Microsoft Surface Hub-like experience to meeting rooms outfitted with displays or projector. Skype for Business online meeting capabilities would provide the remote user experience.

As of yesterday, Project Rigel is now officially the next generation of Skype Room Systems and Microsoft is delivering on that vision to enable a click-of-a-button meeting experience for Skype for Business users. Any space, from small huddle site to broadcast venue, can now be a Skype meeting room, Sinclair noted. "We no longer dictate the environments [for meetings]. Siloed solutions don't fit anybody," he added.

As part of the Skype Room Systems ecosystem, Logitech SmartDock for Skype Room System bundles are available to reserve today, and will start shipping in a few weeks. Crestron's Skype Room Systems will ship at the end of the year, and the Polycom MSR Series for Skype Room Systems will start shipping early next year.

Organizations that use other video conferencing systems aren't to be left in the cold, Sinclair added. Microsoft also has announced the preview of Polycom RealConnect Service for Office365, hosted on Microsoft Azure. Like its premises-based predecessor, RealConnect Service provides a way to non-native video teleconferencing systems from Cisco and others into a Skype for Business meeting using the same easy one-click capabilities available with the next-generation Skype Room Systems. "It's all about protecting the investment people have in telepresence systems while creating a seamless meeting experience," Sinclair said.

Seamless Migration
The last bit of Skype for Business online news revolves around Microsoft's new Skype Operations Framework (SOF). With SOF, Microsoft is offering an expanded set of end-to-end planning, deployment, and operations methodology and tool set for Skype for Business. The recently announced Cloud Migration release aims to ease the task of migration from the on-premises to cloud-based version of Skype for Business. "There's great evidence that customers that take the time to do this right have a great experience," Sinclair said. "And we want everybody to have that sort of experience -- seamless, painless, and delightful."

Watch this space for additional SOF news coming from Skype for Business partners, and until then I'll leave you with one last note. While the rumors that Microsoft is working on a "Slack killer" team messaging app to be named Skype Teams, neither Sinclair nor other Microsoft executives would give credence to the talk. That's not to say such a product isn't taking shape within Microsoft, but just that if it is, it's not ready for primetime yet.

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