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Switch Flips On UC for Office 365 Service

You many have noticed some interesting goings-on lately around the desire to bring a full (or full-ish, depending on how picky you are) UC experience to Microsoft Office 365 and the online version of Skype for Business.

On Monday, for example, Microsoft mostly delivered on the promise it made earlier this year to build out Office 365's telephony functionality, announcing general availability in the U.S. You can read about that elsewhere on No Jitter, so I'm going to focus on an equally interesting approach coming from an unlikely quarter, namely Switch Communications. Switch, you may recall, is the start-up founded by ex-Google folks, partially funded by Google, and focused on bringing UC to otherwise UC-lite Google Apps for Work.

Bulking Up Google Apps for Work
But before we continue on the Skype for Business stuff, indulge me in a tangent... because ever since Google added Hangouts to Google Apps for Work I haven't been comfortable describing the suite as entirely UC-free. With Hangouts, Google Apps for Work gains presence, screen sharing, and video conferencing with up to 15 participants (only 10 on the consumer version of the service). These are all nice, solid UC capabilities.

Further, Google Voice, which integrates into Hangouts, lets Google Apps for Work users place voice calls to PSTN numbers and -- at least for users in the U.S. -- receive calls from the PSTN. Businesses subscribing to Google Apps for Work can port existing phone numbers to Google Voice, though they can't buy blocks of similar numbers to distribute to employees.

What's more, Google Apps for Work users can call international numbers via Hangouts/Google Voice, but the individuals, not the company subscribing to Apps for Work, get the bills for these. Admins can't enable or disable international calling (or, as far as I know, any other call features) for individual employees. And, of course, Google Apps for Work doesn't provide call forward, call hold, or any other PBX features. So Google Apps for Work -- much like Skype for Business Online but for different reasons -- hasn't been able to provide companies an alternative to traditional business telephony services.

Which brings us back to Switch and near my tangent's end. For $15 per user per month, Switch provides much of the telephony functionality that Hangouts and Google Voice are lacking. Since the service launched a year ago, it has carried about one billion minutes, with calling by customers such as The Weather Channel, Uber, and Motorola Solutions, Switch says.

The latter, a marquee Google Apps for Work customer, is standardizing on Switch communications service for employees in more than 40 countries. The Switch service replaces an aging communications environment comprising systems and services from more than 35 suppliers. Back in September, Motorola Solutions had replaced 3,000 desk phones with Switch. I'm told that 12,000 of the company's 20,000+ employees now use Switch.

(Vonage offers a similar Google Apps for Work-integrated-with-UC service. Subscribe to Vonage Premier, and Google Apps integration comes standard. Vonage's Google Apps integration comes from gUnify, the UC middleware start-up that Vonage bought earlier this year, and Simple Signal, the provider of a Broadsoft-based telephony service that had been integrated with gUnify prior to the acquisition. RingCentral also has integrated Google Apps with its hosted telephony service. And Vodafone can offer something very similar in Spain.)

Switch for Skype for Business Online
But Switch recently expanded into two new, unexpected, and decidedly un-Google-ish directions. First, it launched an "open version" of its service that users can order sans Google Apps for Work or any other office productivity software. Sometimes called Switch Open and other times called Switch for Everyone, the service is generally available despite Switch providing no real information about it except a passing mention in a blog.

Switch Open offers the same features and comes at the same price as Switch's otherwise Google Apps-centric offering. As far as I can tell, this technically puts the company into direct competition with 8x8, RingCentral, Vonage, and the myriad other hosted VoIP providers out there. But, as Switch Open isn't backed by a marketing or major sales initiative of any kind, it's likely to be more of a sideshow compared to Switch's other center-ring services.

Look to that center ring and you'll now find not one, but two, services. That's because at the same time Switch began offering the integration-less UC service, it launched integration with Office 365. Again, Switch kept things simple -- same price and same call features as provided with its previous integration with Google Apps.

In this scenario, a company subscribing to Office 365 also subscribes to Switch to break down the barriers of Skype for Business Online's walled garden. That is to say, integrating Office 365 with Switch delivers PBX features, PSTN calling, and other trappings that turn it into a hosted UC service businesses can use instead of traditional PBXs or hosted PBX services.

Microsoft's Telephony Play
It's curious timing to be launching a service that improves Office 365 and Skype for Business Online's UC capabilities, since Microsoft is in the process of doing precisely the same thing. While Skype for Business Online had only provided instant messaging and peer-to-peer voice to users within a company, the new PSTN Calling and Cloud PBX offerings I'd blogged about a while back and just added to the Microsoft cloud voice portfolio effectively turn Skype for Business Online into a hosted telecom service that businesses can use instead of those from more traditional service providers. (For the latest details on Microsoft's Skype for Business cloud voice services, read Monday's No Jitter post, "Success With Skype: Building a Cloud PBX Using new E5 CAL.")

It remains unclear how hard Skype for Business Online with PSTN Calling and Cloud PBX will hit third-party providers like Switch... as well as Arkadin, AT&T, ConnectSolutions, Fuse, Umojo, and Vodafone, which all have similar offerings. They will certainly be in direct competition with Microsoft, which has the advantage of providing a single service from a single provider. But they may find ways to compete based on feature set, price, regional availability, customer service, and so forth.

Cloud voice could turn into a nice, dynamic market with many providers constantly improving their services to outdo the competition. Or one provider may quickly dominate. Time will tell.

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