Success with Skype: Ignite Recap, and What's Headed Your Way

As you likely know from previous No Jitter coverage, last week Microsoft convened its annual "unified enterprise technology conference," Ignite, bringing together several previously distinct events -- the Management Summit, and the Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, Project, and TechEd conferences. This year's sold-out event, held in Atlanta, brought together more than 20,000 IT professionals.

At Ignite, Microsoft focuses on many different technology areas. What follows is a summary of some of the announcements and my thoughts about how these impact Skype for Business.

Skype Teams – Mum's the Word
Let's call this the biggest non-announcement. Analysts and attendees were interested and excited to possibly hear more about the rumored "Slack killer" (see related article, "Microsoft Planning Slack Attack?"). But, as Microsoft executive declared, "We don't talk about things we have not talked about."

Despite the fact that Microsoft wasn't ready to talk about Skype Teams at Ignite, it most definitely has an invite-only "alpha" program underway with participants testing and providing feedback on Skype Teams. You can find some of the leaked information and a few screen images by searching the Internet for "Skype Teams."

And, as you wait for the official introduction of Skype Teams, you can check on the teams-related news Microsoft did announce at Ignite: the integration of Yammer with Office 365 Groups.

Skype for Business Online – All Eggs in the Cloud Basket
As the opening Skype for Business keynote made clear, the emphasis is on the cloud. Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate VP of Skype, and team showed off the soon-to-be-available Skype for Business Online (Skype Online) PSTN Calling features for Spain and France. PSTN Calling allows Microsoft to be your telecom carrier and provide phone numbers (DIDs) in specific geographies: the U.S. as of December 2015, the U.K. and Puerto Rico as of July 2016, and Spain and France shortly (maybe this month but certainly before the end of the year).

Gurdeep's team also demonstrated the Skype Online Cloud PBX Attendant and Cloud PBX Call Queues. These capabilities replace and extend the Response Group service that is part of Skype for Business on-premises and the Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging Auto Attendant. By the end of 2016, organizations should have an easy way to use the Skype Online service to provide a "Thank you for calling ABC Company, press 1 for ..." auto-attendant service. And, they should be able to have inbound calls simultaneously ring multiple users (currently up to 50 in a Distribution List) in order to provide basic contact center-like service.

When asked, representatives indicated that Microsoft field sales compensation plans focus entirely on driving usage of Skype for Business, which translates to a 100% sales focus on selling and encouraging organizations to use Skype Online. They also suggested that Microsoft has focused 95% of the Skype for Business engineering resources on Skype Online.

Microsoft indicated it remains on track to provide Skype Online with "scenario parity" to Skype for Business on-premises by the end of 2017. Scenario parity refers to the ability for Skype Online to address the same user needs as Skype for Business on-premises currently does, even if not always in an identical fashion. Whatever Microsoft chooses to call it, it is very clear that the capabilities and features of Skype Online are and will continue to expand at a rapid pace.

Project Rigel – for $2,000 Even Your Closet Becomes a Meeting Room
Project Rigel, first mentioned by Corporate VP Zig Serafin during his Enterprise Connect 2016 keynote, aims to help Skype for Business address the more than "97 percent of meeting rooms ... currently equipped with traditional projectors or displays and only a telephone for including remote participants," as noted in an official company blog.

Project Rigel, now officially the next generation of Skype Room Systems, is built around a Surface Pro 4 as the main control panel and display driver. This Surface device runs a Windows app on a specialized version of Windows (in kiosk mode) and sits in a specially designed "dock" that connects to an existing display (or projector). A camera and audio device plugs into the dock to complete the setup.

Logitech looks to be the first company bringing a complete Project Rigel solution to market; it is currently accepting reservations for its bundle. Polycom and Crestron plan to have offerings available next year.

Cisco & Apple Partnership – Yields Biggest Benefits for Microsoft
In August 2015, Cisco announced a partnership with Apple to provide "unique collaboration capabilities on iPhones and iPads." It appears that the iPhone capabilities weren't as unique as first portrayed. While Cisco recently described the fruition of this partnership as allowing "Cisco Spark to be built to take full advantage of the features in iOS 10," the reality is that any VoIP application, including the Skype for Business mobile iPhone client, can take advantage of iOS 10 and the new Apple CallKit API to improve the end-user experience (see related article, "Cisco Missing the Mark on iOS Calling?"). (Ironically the best overview I could find of the new Apple API was on the, Microsoft-owned Xamarin website. Xamarin is a cross-platform toolset that allows developers to create iOS, Android, and Windows apps using a single codebase.)

Key usability enhancements available via the CallKit API include the ability to:

The Callkit API allows the Skype for Business mobile client, or any other VoIP application, to participate as a first-class application citizen. Gurdeep showed off a version of a new iPhone Skype for Business mobile client during his keynote; the new client should be available sometime this month.

Mac Interface Leads the Way – a Modern-Day Tortoise and the Hare Story
During Gurdeep's keynote the new, and almost ready for release, Skype for Business Mac client was on full display. According to Gurdeep, "The new client has been written from the ground up using the modern Mac programming language, Swift."

The new Mac client provides edge-to-edge, full-screen video conferencing and desktop sharing. During video conferencing all the meeting controls disappear to avoid distracting participants; the controls come back with a move of the mouse. The client provides access to all Skype for Business capabilities using a menu bar along the left side of the main window; this menu bar also lets users schedule meetings without needing to jump into Outlook. Interestingly, I've seen the same client window and menu bar layout and similar edge-to-edge video in the leaked Skype Teams screen captures.

Microsoft indicated it would eventually apply the look and feel of the new Mac Skype for Business client to the Windows Skype for Business client.

The Future Is Cloudy and Smart – but Will This Improve Weather Forecasting or Just Make More Rain?
During his Ignite keynote, CEO Satya Nadella focused on artificial intelligence (AI) and Microsoft's goal of democratizing AI in order to empower every person and every institution on the planet to achieve more. He highlighted the power of AI by calling Doug Burger, distinguished engineer, to the stage for a series of live demonstrations. Doug used the Microsoft "intelligent cloud" to translate "War and Peace," the 1,440-page novel written in 1869 by author Leo Tolstoy, from Russian to English in just 2.5 seconds. And this was just the warm-up exercise.

Demonstrating AI on a global scale, Doug choose to use the five million English language articles in Wikipedia, representing about three billion words, as the next translation target. To help understand the quantity of text this represents, Doug noted that if all of these articles were printed on paper it would be a stack a quarter of a mile high. Given "the raw power of this hyperscale AI supercomputer that we've embedded in our cloud, in our global cloud ... the translation of five million articles could be completed in ... less than a tenth of a second ... less time than it takes to blink once," he said.

The opportunity to connect the AI cloud to Skype for Business, first demonstrated by Zig at Enterprise Connect, was again shown in Gurdeep's Ignite Skype keynote demonstrating real-time transcription and translation services within the Skype Meeting Broadcast service. This capability, currently in preview, is expected to be available later this year.

Projecting forward, AI powered by a hyperscale cloud and continually learning through millions of daily interactions offers the potential for real-time translation of all communications and the opportunity to index and make searchable the entire depth and breadth of meeting content. Further, AI can power natural language IM, voice and even video interactions with super-intelligent bots that help us access information and get things done. Today Skype connects millions of people every day. In the not too distant future, Skype may connect millions of people to millions of bots.

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