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Team Building, the Microsoft Way

At its annual Build conference, taking place this week in Seattle, Microsoft provides its developer community insights, tools, and previews on how to extend and customize its solutions. Among the many announcements across Office 365 and Azure, are updates that expand Microsoft Teams from an extensible application to a messaging and command platform.

Microsoft is moving extraordinarily fast with Teams, its team collaboration software now available in 181 markets and 39 languages -- and in use at more than 200,000 organizations, the company has reported (although it hasn't released usage metrics). Microsoft previewed Teams in late 2016, and made the app generally available in March 2017. Last fall, Microsoft announced Teams would replace Skype for Business Online, and has since steadily added numerous communications and conferencing features to Teams.

Earlier this year, Microsoft added conference PSTN services globally, and calling plans (integrated UCaaS) are available now in the U.S. and Canada. More recent additions include cloud-recording and guest access. Concurrently, Teams functionality has been expanding with an ecosystem of more than 200 integrations with third-party partners.

At Build, Microsoft announced new features that position Teams as a richer development platform. Developers will have expanded and new tools to customize and extend Teams into a broader range of business processes.

Teams is often referred to as a workstream collaboration solution. "Workstream" is intended to convey how these applications can provide a portal to necessary apps and systems necessary for day-to-day work activities. This contrasts with UC's use as a complementary, but separate, app -- that is, the primary work activity takes place within other applications and the user then switches to a UC application for communications.

Most UC and UCaaS solutions can integrate or extend communications features to other apps. This is typically done with APIs. A popular example is adding click-to-dial features to a CRM. Workstream apps can do that, too, but they more often take a portal approach. This allows the messaging application to become a user's primary application for day-to-day activities. The messaging app effectively becomes the single app that can provide the user access to people (teams and directories), content (docs and apps), and communications (messaging and real-time voice and video).

This approach isn't new, but Microsoft is expanding platform capabilities of Teams. This includes a much stronger integration with SharePoint, allowing SharePoint apps to be deployed or pinned in Teams; Microsoft Graph; and Azure bot services.

The improved integration with Microsoft Graph enables a broad set of features across Office 365. Microsoft Graph is getting extended with a new Calls entity that offers a series of attributes for call control, sharing, and meeting; IVR services such as recorded messages; and analytics. The result is a new set of programmable voice and video services expected later this year. These changes represent a significant expansion of programmatic, real-time services for Teams that go well beyond the Skype for Business APIs (UC Web API and UCMA).

To simplify development, Microsoft announced improvements to its Teams App Studio, a cloud-based, app development solution that uses forms to generate code. Microsoft has also simplified the path to commercialization via the Office Store.

The main takeaway for non-developers is that Microsoft is indeed serious about Teams -- as both an application and platform. Microsoft is apparently positioning Teams as the primary productivity portal for business users. Note that it includes Teams in all business Office 365 subscription packages.

Microsoft has also enabled templates for Teams that simplify administrative tasks, including the ability to pre-load integrated applications. The templates also facilitate specialized or vertical use cases. A Teams environment can even now be cloned.

The addition of programmable communications puts Teams into a unique class that includes workstream collaboration, UCaaS, and CPaaS. It also blurs the boundaries of application and platform. Most importantly, these dev-oriented enhancements will reduce the need to start, stop, and switch applications.

Build is a developer conference. At Microsoft Ignite, planned for this fall, expect more details and announcements geared toward users and IT professionals.

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Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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