I wasn’t able to go to Microsoft Ignite this year in Atlanta, but 4,078 miles away I have been watching social media, Microsoft blogs, live and on demand streams to gather as much relevant information as possible with regards to Skype for Business. The intention of this post is to summarise the key points I have come across, and there are quite a few.
At the Ignite Keynote I picked up on the fact that Microsoft’s message for this Ignite was all about Cloud and Business Transformation. Not suprising right? The cloud bit not so much, but now Microsoft have taken their gloves off, removed their arm from around SI partners and are now pushing more and more direct services to businesses. The message was clear, Corporate Vice President Julia White said that I.T no longer stands for Information Technology, but Innovation and Transformation. What does this mean?
Each of us will have our own intepretation of this, but for me:
Innovation – 75% Microsoft driven application services, 15% partner driven application services and 5% home grown application development. The decade 2020-2030 will be known as the decade of the Dev, like 2000-2010 was the decade of virtualisation and optimisation.
I haven’t mentioned hardware here, it is so readily available in Cloud platforms like Azure and AWS that businesses no longer need the captial investment to host their application locally. It is becoming less and less of a consideration because nowadays its just a subscription box on a website. Click a button and boom, there you go! In fact, customers have stopped talking CPU and RAM and have become more and more concerned with data security and sovreignty.
This now means that businesses can concentrate on applications to streamline their productivity, save costs, and expand at a never before seen scale. The cloud brings the “Art of the possible” to any business no matter how large or small.
Microsoft have invested heavily, I dread to think how many $billion into providing the horsepower and the platform to allow businesses to become more productive, and at some point in needs to pay off for them, which brings me on to the next point.
Transformation – The decade 2010-2020 is the decade of transformation. This is decade where businesses begin their journey from private datacenters, to hybrid private / public cloud, and eventually all the way to cloud only. The trouble is, no one has done this before, not at this scale anyway, so Microsoft need their SI partners in order to help them take customers on the journey. To try out new scenarios, new ways of working in order to prove the concept in a way.
For the business, its a new way of thinking, a new way of working. Just because you have sent an email in this way for the last 25 years, doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be like this for the next 25.. To quote Henry Ford “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”
This is true to this day and relevant to Microsoft and IT. Microsoft are driving innovation and paving the road ahead of us. Now is the time we all see whether this is the road to Graceland? Transformation is all about this journey, and it just means, looking at things from a different vantage point.
What is beyond the cloud? – It is difficult to imagine, and in one of those Back to the Future moments, with the development of machine learning, Microsoft Graph, Internet of Things by the decade 2030-2040 we could be looking at something monumental. Will Microsoft be the first innovators to connect the consumer and business world together, in one global AI network? I see this as the holy grail of IT, allowing business transactions to happen in consumer spaces, and the ability of both worlds to influence decisions within each other.
But anyway, the point of the Keynote was to tell the world that Microsoft is ready, and now is the time to stop thinking legacy and start doing something with the cloud.
Now on to the Skype for Business stuff! And I warn you, this is ALL Skype for Business ONLINE! You will notice, not a single announcement was made where Microsoft referenced ON-PREMISES! This means, whether you like it or not, 2017 is going to be Cloud First to Cloud Only!!
Microsoft have announced that they will be launching closed caption REAL TIME transcription service to Broadcast Meetings in English, Simplified Chinese, German and Spanish, with a commital of 50, yes FIFTY other languages on-demand coming soon. This I believe uses Azure media services in conjunction with bing translate and probably a whole bunch of other tech that I just dont understand, but for multi-national businesses who want to get their marketing or corporate message out in native tongues, this service will be inspirational! I imagine the first iteration have some inaccuracies. I was watching the Keynote live with the transcription service in English and there were a few questionable errors and it seemed to have trouble catching up with fast speakers, or transitioning between people if the handover was too fast. But the service will get there, given time.
There were a number of announcements in this space. The biggest announcement for me was that by the end of the year we will be able to host Skype Online meetings in a local datacenter. What does this mean? Typically Office 365 tenants are located in one geographic Office 365 datacenter. For the UK, this is Ireland. So when users spin up meetings they are hosted on the Skype for Business servers in that datacenter. Typically, this would not be a huge problem, but if that user (organiser) is in the Los Angeles office, they have to connect to the meeting service in Ireland for that meeting. This introduces latency and poor quality risks, and a longed for feature, was a geo dispersed Office 365 tenant. By the end of the year, if the user is located in another country, they will be able to host the meeting at the nearest Office 365 datacenter to them, regardless to where the company’s tenant was originally set up! Details are still sketchy, but I Imagine the service will look at the user’s assigned location in Office 365 licencing in order to determine which MCU to host the meeting on. This is amazing news, and now reduces the argument for Express Route even more so as local conferences will always work better than intercontinental. The underlying logic behind this of course, is that when the organiser creates a meeting, they will in general be inviting participants within their local region to the meeting.
Project Rigel – Next Generation Skype Room Systems
Back at Enterprise Connect last April, Microsoft in partnership with Logitech, Polycom and Crestron announced Project Rigel. The aim of Rigel was to bring the power of the Lync Room System to any meeting room with just standard equipment. Typically Skype Room Systems where dedicated systems cost many thousands of pounds and Microsoft realised that only 2% of the world’s meeting rooms had this equipment. The biggest factor here is money. So Microsoft teamed up with their partners to devise a simple system that could take standard equipment such as a TV or Projector, and webcam and turn them into a fully fledged Room System. This was codenamed Rigel.
At Ignite, Microsoft announced that Rigel is no longer a project, but now ready for release. From this week, Rigel is now referred to as “The Next Generation Skype Room System” (I preferred Rigel myself…)
Logitech are the first out of the starting gate with their Smart Dock. This is a custom Surface Pro 4 with a custom Skype Client that allows you to connect your standard room equipment into the Skype Meeting Room and use it as if it was a traditional Skype Room System. Pre-orders are open see http://www.logitech.com/en-gb/product/smartdock for more details. The Smart Dock comes with an extender box to allow for multiple connections of HDMI and USB and is ideal for the medium sized meeting room. Technical Specifications as follows:-
- Integrated Surface Connector
- Two HDMI output supporting up to 1080p60
- One HDMI input supporting content sharing up to 1920×1200 and 60fps
- One Gigabit Ethernet (RJ45) port
- Three USB 3.1 ports
- One 3.5mm headset audio jack
- Motion sensor / presence detection with 3 meter range
- Kensington security slot
Logitech SmartDock Extender Box:
- 5-in-1 cable including Dual HDMI, Network, USB and Power
- Two amplified HDMI outputs supporting up to 1080p60
- One gigabit ethernet (RJ45) port
- Two USB 3.1 ports
- Integrated Logitech GROUP Hub with DIN ports for GROUP
- Camera and Speakerphone
- Kensington security slot
Interestingly the System Requirements state:
- Microsoft® Surface® Pro 4
- Skype for Business Account
- External Display with HDMI input
- 100-240v AC Power
We need a Surface Pro 4?!? Does that mean ANY Surface Pro 4? I guess details will come out soon!
A few key points from Gurdeep’s session was that (if I interpreted it correctly) Microsoft are governing these solutions, but partners are developing them. What I believe this means is that no matter what partner you choose, Logitech, Polycom, Crestron, the offering will be the same, no difference in specification and more importantly all within the same price bracket. With Gurdeep saying you can have one of these devices for $2,000 suggests that Microsoft are subsidising these (again assumption).
Another interesting point from Gurdeep’s session was he never ONCE mentioned “Skype for Business” in his delivery. Everything was just “Skype”. Combine that with the fact these room systems are called SKYPE ROOM SYSTEMS and not SKYPE FOR BUSINESS ROOM SYSTEMS, and in his usage stats (1 billion minutes of conversations on Skype, and 1 trillion minutes of video on Skype) included the consumer version, does this mean that Skype for Business is getting phased out and the service will be combining with Skype?! Watch this space… But for now, Skype Room Systems is still a Skype for Business product that will only work with Skype for Business and not Skype consumer, and Skype for Business is STILL completely different to Skype consumer. But it is an interesting thought…
The focus this year has been Microsoft pushing the development of the MAC client. They have made a lot of noise about this, making sure everyone knows that they have developed this from the ground up and they are very much focussed on making the MAC client the best client experience for Skype for Business. This will please a lot of MAC users, who finally may start to feel Microsoft cares about them. In reality though, this is a marketing ploy (in my opinion) on a greater objective from Microsoft. It is my belief that Microsoft have chosen to make a point with the MAC client that their long term objective is to be a services provider who can deliver the same service and experience to users no matter what machine or operating system they have. No longer is Microsoft a Operating System company, they have all but written that side of the business off now, but a services company who develop applications to connect to their services on any OS.
If you think back, Windows 7 was compared to MAC OS, Windows 8 was said to be the closest Windows OS to MAC yet. Windows 10 came out and this will eventually be scaled down from a full OS to probably something more similar to Google’s ChromeOS. So Microsoft want to prove that they can do it cross platform, and the fact that MAC is so prevolent in the consumer space it is the perfect platform to show what they can do and is the perfect marketing story to sell.
This of course is great news for MAC users, they are being given the opportunity to be the first to experience true cross plaform full feature parity and I have to say I really like the MAC client look and feel from the pictures and demo’s I have seen. I am not a MAC user, but this may entice me to consider one next time I am looking for some hardware. Which is probably what Microsoft want really..
One thing I am confused over though, is the different style to the client. Back in 2015 when Skype for Business was released, the message from Microsoft was that they wanted the same client experience and style across all platforms. This was a key message that they belived by providing the same styles to PC, Mobile, MAC clients they could reduce training requirements and increase adoption. However, looking at the MAC Client, it bears no resemblence to the PC Client. I mean nothing!
Combine that with the Skype Room System experience, it shares the same colour scheme as the MAC Client (dark background and different control icons). Does this mean the PC Client will follow? I have my own theory based on this and a video Gurdeep played in his presentation. The video showed a person walking down the street with a Microsoft phone, and also at a desk with a Surface. They were using Skype for Business to IM and call but the interesting part was there was no PC Client in view. Instead, it seemed that this functionality was natively part of Windows 10 OS and Cortana. More importantly, the style of this was identical to the styles being shipped with the Skype Room System and MAC Client… Not convinced, take a look:
Not what we are used to is it? Who knows, you decide – these screenshots where taken from the video in question during Gurdeep’s session (~40 mins in) You decide!
Now the MAC Client look:
and in full screen
Still not convinced? Let’s take a look at the Skype Room System experience..
Uncanny isn’t it? You decide..
Coming in October 2016 the new iOS mobile app for Skype for Business will leverage Apple’s CallKit. This will allow Skype for Business calls to be made or answered using the native dial pad on the iPhone. Allowing for faster call handling and breaking the barrier between App and native call controls on the phone (some times we need to remember that the smart phone is still a phone!)
Polycom RealConnect for Office 365
Again, another project announcement from Enterprise Connect back in April has come to fruition, in that Polycom have now released their Azure hosted Real Connect Service for Office 365. This service is now in preview (www.skypepreview.com) and allows businesses to connect non-Skype for Business VTCs to Skype ONLINE meetings with full H.264SVC HD video without any on-premises hardware required. So if you have Cisco VTCs, these can now be used in your Skype for Business Online Video Conferences. Although details are still sketchy, the meeting demoed in Gurdeep’s session was using the RealConnect service to connect Polycom and Cisco VTCs into the Skype Online meeting being hosted on Skype Room System (Logitech smartdock) to really show the power and interoperation now available in Office 365. I believe that the RealConnect service will be a subscription based service you can purchase through Office 365 in the same manner as you can apply add-ons to your E(x) licences. But confirmation of this will follow I guess.
PSTN Calling in Cloud PBX
Microsoft announced two more countries with native PSTN Calling service in Skype for Business Online / Cloud PBX. France and Spain are the next countries to get this service in PREVIEW. Sign up to www.skypepreview.com
PSTN Conferencing in Skype for Business Online
Microsoft are expanding their global PSTN conferencing service and have added 18 more countries to the list of dial-in access numbers, including:
- Costa Rica
- Sri Lanka
Although impressive, I wonder how many dial-in partcipants joining your meetings will be living in Bosnia…? Nevertheless, not taking this away from Microsoft, it is an achievement and to be able to conference at your local rate or even toll free should be a freedom afforded to us all, so well done!
In October this year (2016) we will finally be able to preview the long awaited Organisational AutoAttendant and Call Queues service in Cloud PBX. These services are built on the new Web API being touted as the Trusted Application API (not the final name by all accounts) and this will be the replacement to UCMA for all you app devs out there. In addition, we will be able to use dynamic conference IDs so our meetings can be more secure. Though nothing new to the on-prem world, this is just another feature ticked off the parity list as far as I am concerned.
Before the End of the Year
Before we all hang our feet up, fill our bellies with wine and good food for the Festive period we can expect to see the following features released:
- Advanced analytics for Skype for Business Online (MicroZero :)) which is basically the IP Microsoft bought from Event Zero. Biggest advantage is that it gives you a single pane of glass insight into your experience
- Common Area Phone support in Skype for Business Online
- Outbound Caller ID Manipulation
- UCWA to be renamed to User API
In the new year we can expect to see the final push to Online parity with the release of the following:
- Custom Dial Plans for each tenant
- Extension Dial Support
- Private Line
- Busy on Busy
- Location Discovery (Huge this one… think CAC..)
- Voiemail transcription service
- Group Pickup
- Multi Line Appearance
- Dynamic E-911 (dependent on Location discovery at a guess)
- and ONE MASSIVE ANNOUNCEMENT – The Cloud Connected Appliance!!
The Cloud Connected Appliance sounds interesting. Microsoft are going to release their own CCE appliance.. watch this space, can’t say too much about this right now.
STIF – Some Time In Future
Microsoft will be releasing a huge improvement to OWA and Skype for Business Online integration. Presently, you have basic IM and Presence capabilities within OWA. Microsoft will be releasing AUDIO and VIDEO support within OWA without a plugin!! Huge anticipation on this.. Is this the way the PC Client is going?!?!? Time will tell..
Ayway I hope this has given you a round up of all the announcements from Ignite so far.
Mark is an Independent Microsoft Teams Consultant with over 15 years experience in Microsoft Technology. Mark is the founder of Commsverse, a dedicated Microsoft Teams conference and former MVP. You can follow him on twitter @UnifiedVale