Skype for Business Preview on Mac Coming Up. Join Me in Testing!

Skype for Business

Skype for Business is (finally) coming to Mac.

This week, Microsoft updated its timeline for the new Skype for Business Mac client. It has 3 previews coming up, with an RTM date in Q3. You’ll find the details at ZDNet: Microsoft closing in on Skype for Business for Mac public preview 1 – ZDNet.com

And on the Office.com Blog’s April 2016 update: New to Office 365 in April—Skype for Business Mac Preview, bringing collaboration to the forefront in Office and more – Office Blogs

Looks like they’re planning to build the Mac client out in stages.
Stage 1: Meetings. Starting with Meetings means Microsoft is tackling the service with the biggest bandwidth requirement first. Smart. Meetings have the most moving parts, which means the most bugs to hammer out.

Stage 2: Messaging, Contact Lists. 4-6 weeks after Preview 1. Messaging is relatively simple by comparison to Meetings. But it (and Contact Lists) are crucial components to iron out.

Stage 3: Voice. 8-12 weeks after Preview 1. The Mac users I know pride their machines on simplicity (and not without merit). For this client to work on Mac, voice MUST be easy to use. Otherwise the whole client is handicapped.

Skype for Business Preview on Mac

I borrowed this image from the Office Blog to point something out. If this is what we expect for Preview 1, then I note a couple of differences between Skype Meetings on Mac and on PC.

  1. No toolbar with Present options along the bottom
  2. Mac uses the Picture-in-Picture viewing mode
  3. Borderless Meeting display

Nice clean start. Which, according to Mary Jo at ZDNet, is the whole point. “Microsoft isn’t simply retrofitting the Lync for Mac product base, officials said. Instead the team has built the Skype for Business for Mac client from the ground up, they said.”

But Wait! The Preview has Arrived!

The ZDNet article updated only hours after publication. Microsoft has begun the preview!

Naturally I raced over to the preview site: https://www.skypepreview.com

I signing up for the following:

  • iOS Mobile
  • Skype 4 Business Mac Client Meetings Experience (a Mac meetings-only client)

(I wanted to sign up for the “New firmware for Polycom VVX Phones” too, but our new phones haven’t arrived yet…)

Hope to hear back very soon.

Why am I talking about this now? Because I’ve decided to conduct a little blog experiment.

When I’m accepted, I intend to document all my Mac testing in blog posts. Devices in use are my iPhone 6, one MacBooks, and one desktop Mac. I may even try Skype for Business out my personal iPad (an iPad 2 – older, but good for perspective).

Initial criteria are as follows.

  1. Meeting Functions (scheduling, voice, meet now, content sharing)
  2. Meeting Quality (is the video smooth, good voice quality, app responsiveness on each device)

As the next 2 previews come out, I plan to document the changes and how my devices react to them.

Great fodder for the blog, right? But I’d like to go even further. I want to hear from you!

Join Me in Testing – Preview Skype for Business on your Mac and Share Your Findings

If you sign up for any of the following at https://www.skypepreview.com:

  • Cloud PBX
  • PSTN Calling – Geo. Expansion
  • Cloud Video Interoperability Service
  • Skype Meeting Broadcast Enhancements
  • Android Mobile

Please contact me. I’d like to interview you as the testing progresses. I can even help you out with your testing.

The point? Document everything here on the blog. Multiple user experiences of Skype for Business on Mac. Valuable information for potential Mac customers, and for Microsoft’s testing team.

My standard guest policy applies: First name only. Business name only published with your express permission. No personal and/or proprietary information is ever shared on this blog, or with any other party. I don’t even add you the Skype4B Insider mailing list (unless you ask me to!).

Join us back here next week! What will we have – another Skype4B for Mac update? A good how-to post? You never know until you click.

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SQL-Active Directory Mismatch Prevents Skype4B User Login

Reference, Skype for Business

User accounts. They seem like simple things, don’t they? Enter your email and a password, log onto Skype (or your laptop, Outlook, etc.) and start work.

But we know better. In reality, every user account has several moving parts behind it. Server names, Active Directory credentials, database entries…all interconnecting behind the scenes. Making your login process the usual 5-second time-to-get-going routine it is.

Until one of those parts breaks.

An SID Mismatch Lurking Between Database and Active Directory

The other day, our Skype for Business team assisted a customer who couldn’t login to their Skype account. The password was correct. The user account shows as valid in Skype’s Control Panel. Where’s the issue?

Since the user shows up in the Skype4B Control Panel, we went to the logs. Soon we found a telling error:

“Failed to authorize user credentials
User Token SID S-XXXXXX did not match DB SID S-XXXXXXX”

An SID mismatch. What would cause that?

In this case, the most likely reason was old Lync information.

User Replicator Issue in the Database, Maybe From In-Place Upgrade

A few weeks prior, we’d performed an In-Place Upgrade for this customer. Lync Server 2013 on-prem to Skype for Business 2015 on-prem. The upgrade itself went all right – a couple snags with Exchange, which we smoothed out.

However, it appears another error had surfaced. We checked our runbooks; no previous incidents like this. So we searched online. We came across this post from Mostafa, a Lync/Skype for Business consultant in Germany:

Lync/Skype for Business – LS User Replicator Event ID 30020 – The Lync Dude

We tried the PowerShell cmdlet indicated in the post: Update-CsUserDatabase

Sure enough, we got the same error message.

“Event ID 30020, source ‘LS User Replicator’
User URI is already being used by another valid user in the database…”

Error 30020 User URI Duplicate

So what we had was a user account with some conflicting information between Active Directory and SQL Server. Residual information from Lync 2013 days, it appears, got stuck in the server database.

How? Not sure. Possibly a bug in the In-Place Upgrade. We made note to report it to Microsoft. But first, we needed to fix it!

The Solution – Modify SQL Database. Success, But There was a Snag

The blog post indicated a solution. Careful though – it involves directly modifying SQL databases. Chances of breaking the database, and your Skype4B right along with it, are significant. Make a FULL backup before trying this.

  1. Disable and delete the user from your Skype for Business Control Panel. Note down the user’s SIP address.
  2. Login to the Front End Server.
  3. Start SQL Management Studio.
  4. Connect to the RTCLOCAL Instance. (THIS is where it gets risky!)
  5. Run the following query against the RTC database: Execute dbo.RtcDeleteResource ‘[the user’s SIP address]’
  6. Restart the following services on the Front End:
    • Master Replica Agent
    • Replica Replicator Agent
  7. Wait a few minutes.
  8. Recreate the user account in Skype for Business Control Panel.
  9. Wait a few more minutes for full replication.

We hit a snag though – the process didn’t work for us! Even after several tries.

So we called Microsoft Support. We shared the SQL solution. Shouldn’t this work, we asked? Yes, said the Support rep, it should. Let me try it.

We granted the Support rep access. He logged into SQL, tried the query…and it worked.

Everyone blinked at each other for a moment. The same process, the same database, and the same access permissions. Nobody could explain why it worked when the Microsoft Support rep did it, but not when we did. Even the Microsoft rep admitted he wasn’t sure why!

But, no matter how, the fact is that it did work. We recreated the user’s account, and there were no more login issues.

Editing SQL a Last Resort, But for an ID Mismatch Like This One, It Worked

Bit of a mystery, start to finish. We did report the initial issue to Microsoft, of course. The rep said they had a similar bug logged (possibly by Mostafa).

I’m documenting the experience, mysteries and all, for our fellow Skype4B pros. If you do encounter a user account which mysteriously refuses to log in, may this post help you fix it!

Have you encountered a user account issue that required editing SQL to fix? Please comment or email. I’m curious what other issues like this (if any) exist out there.

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What to Do If Your Skype Meeting Configuration Doesn’t Update

Conferencing, Reference, Skype for Business

We may have found a new bug in Skype for Business Server. It’s located in one of the fields in your Skype Meeting invite.

First, some background:
When we set up our Meeting Invite in Lync Server 2013, it contained three lines under the “Join by phone” section:

  • PlanetMagpie Dialin [link]
  • Our Local Dial-in Access Number
  • “Find a local number” link

The thing is, the “PlanetMagpie Dialin” link didn’t always work. We logged it as an issue, but didn’t fully investigate before moving to Skype for Business.

The other day, we decided to update the Skype Meeting invite. In order to do this you must make changes in the Skype for Business Control Panel:

  1. In Conferencing, under “Meeting Configuration”
  2. In Conferencing, under “Dial-In Access Number”

Meeting Configuration lets you add personalization through a logo & custom text. Dial-In Access Numbers lets you set the phone number with which users can call into the meeting. You also set the number’s display name.

From TechNet:

“When you deploy dial-in conferencing, you need to set up phone numbers that users can dial from the public switched telephone network (PSTN) to join the audio portion of conferences. These dial-in access numbers appear in meeting invitations and on the Dial-in Conferencing Settings webpage.”
Manage dial-in conferencing access numbers in Skype for Business Server 2015 – TechNet

That’s where we noticed something different. We could not change the Display Name.

The ‘Display Name’ field itself had stopped cooperating.

DisplayName Field Not Required

Optional, but not updating

(Likely) Cause: Bug in ‘Display Name’ from Lync Server Days

In Lync Server 2013, under Dial-In Access Numbers, the Display Name field was recommended but not mandatory. This is where we put the “PlanetMagpie Dialin” name referenced above.

When we upgraded, “PlanetMagpie Dialin” remained in the Display Name field. Skype for Business did its job, and preserved our dial plan information during In-Place Upgrade.

We edited the Display Name, as well as the logo & footer text under Meeting Configuration. But the changes didn’t populate to the Outlook meeting invites. Even trying the recommended cmdlet – Set-CsDialInConferencingAccessNumber – didn’t work.

Likely reason? A bug involving the ‘Display Name’ field. When Microsoft built Skype for Business, the upgrade carried dial plan information through. It appears that our upgrade also carried the bug over!

So we had an un-updated meeting invite, despite the server showing all the changes we wanted. How do we fix it?

Solution: Delete & Recreate the Dial-In Access Number

As with many troubleshooting episodes, the old “rip & replace” worked. Here’s what we did.

  • Confirmed the Meeting Configuration has the values you want.
  • Switch to the Dial-In Access Numbers window.
  • Open the dial plan you have in place now. Take a screenshot of it. Click Cancel.
  • Click Edit. Click Delete to delete the dial plan.
  • Now the server needs to refresh. The fastest way to do this is to open Management Shell and enter the following cmdlet:
    Invoke-CsManagementStoreReplication
  • Wait a moment for the changes to replicate. You can check the status with this cmdlet:
    Get-CsManagementStoreReplicationStatus
  • When it displays “True” the changes have replicated. Return to the Control Panel.
  • Still in Dial-In Access Numbers, click New.
  • Using the screenshot you took, re-enter the same dial plan values.
  • Click Commit.
  • Once again, open Management Shell and enter the following cmdlet:
    Invoke-CsManagementStoreReplication
  • As before, you can check the status with:
    Get-CsManagementStoreReplicationStatus
  • Wait for it to display “True.” Then you’ll know the new dial plan is published.
  • If you want to double-check, open Users in Skype for Business Control Panel. Open one or more User accounts and confirm that your dial plan name appears for them.
  • It may take a little longer for the meeting invite to update on all client computers. This took a while for us – long enough to grab lunch, in fact.

Once the updates populated, I checked our meeting invites.

Meeting Invite, No 'DialIn' Text

See? “PlanetMagpie Dialin” vanished, but the call-in number remained.  All other changes appeared too.  Meeting invites up-to-date!

Uncommon Bug, But Deserving of a Skype4B Insider Post!

We aren’t sure this is an official bug. I didn’t locate specific mentions of it in TechNet. We’ll report it, of course, just in case. Even the rarest bug deserves reporting.

In any event, since it IS a Skype for Business issue, we must document it on the blog! Hope it helps you, if you’ve reached this post and have a similar issue messing up your meeting invites.

Have you encountered issues with Meeting Configuration or Dial-In Access Numbers? If so, please comment or email what happened. I’d love to hear about it.

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Auto Attendant Failing? Your UM Dial Plan Can’t Have Spaces in its Name

Exchange Server 2013, Reference, Skype for Business, Unified Communications

We encountered a tiny issue the other day. It did exactly what tiny issues do – caused a lot of trouble!

Auto Attendant DiagramOur team was finalizing a new customer’s Skype for Business implementation. They set up the servers; all good. They set up user accounts; no problem. They tested connections on user machines; everyone can talk to one another.

Then we did some test calls from outside their network. Exchange’s Auto Attendant should pick up and offer us some departmental choices.

But it’s not picking up.

Ten-second rundown: The Auto Attendant is part of an Exchange Server component called Unified Messaging. Unified Messaging (or UM) gives you access to voicemails in your inbox, and it allows you to create Auto Attendants for managing call transfers. You use an Auto Attendant-type of system whenever you call a business and hear, “Press 1 for Sales, Press 2 for Support…”

In this case, our customer’s Auto Attendant would not activate at all. We checked server logs and found no errors. The customers could still get their voicemails. Everything was configured properly. So what’s causing the problem?

It took us a little time to find the answer. Which, it turns out, was tiny!

Unified Messaging Dial Plans Cannot Use Spaces in Their Names

The issue originated in the UM Dial Plan. Specifically, its name.

When we set up the UM Dial Plan for this customer, we called it, “CustomerName UM Dial Plan.” Which, it turns out, is the wrong syntax to use. Because it has spaces in it.

The issue originates in Exchange Server 2013. It prevents Lync (or Skype4B) users from calling an Exchange UM Auto Attendant, if there are spaces in the Auto Attendant’s Dial Plan name.

(Please note: We think this issue is still present in Exchange Server 2016.)

Why such an issue exists, I’m not sure. But it does.

So, simple fix, right? Just rename the Dial Plan?

Unfortunately not. You can’t change a Dial Plan’s name once it’s created. We had to create an all-new one, an exact duplicate of the first (without the spaces in its name!), and then delete the old Dial Plan.

On top of that, we’d have to disable all the users’ Unified Messaging mailboxes, and then re-enable them with the new UM Dial Plan. All for a couple of spaces.

The Fix: Create a New UM Dial Plan, Enable All Users for It, Then Remove Old UM Dial Plan

Naturally, we consulted the Almighty Google and The Most High TechNet for answers. We found them on a couple blogs.

First off, Michael Epping’s post on Concurrency.com titled, Change Users’ Exchange UM Dial Plan. He describes the exact problem we encountered. He also provides a solution.

The quickest and cleanest way to do this is through PowerShell. Creating a new UM Dial Plan, disable all users’ UM mailboxes, re-enable the mailboxes with the new Dial Plan, and then removing the old Dial Plan.

2016-04-07_10-51-34

We followed Michael’s process exactly, and he’s done a good job documenting it in his post, so I won’t copy everything over. He deserves the clicks. What I will do is highlight the steps involved for disabling and re-enabling the UM mailboxes.

NOTE: Make sure you create a new UM Dial Plan before you do this!

  1. Run the “Get-UMMailbox” cmdlet to export primary SMTP addresses, SIP resources and extensions.
  2. Open the exported list in Excel. Select the extensions column. Click Text to Columns in the Data tab.
  3. Select Delimited if it’s not already. Click Next.
  4. Check Semicolon under the Delimiters. Click Next.
  5. You should have a column with SIP addresses and one with extensions. Remove the column with SIP addresses.
  6. Highlight Cell D2. Enter the following text. Replace “UMMailboxPolicy” with the name of your UM Mailbox policy.
    =CONCATENATE(“Enable-UMMailbox -Identity “,A2,” -UMMailboxPolicy Lync -SipResourceIdentifier “,B2,” -Extensions “,C2,””)
  7. Highlight D2 again. Click the lower-right corner square. Drag it down to recreate this command for each user in the list.
  8. You should end up with a list of “Enable-UMMailbox” commands for each user.
  9. Copy all of Column D. Paste into Notepad or another text editor.
  10. Make sure the first line, above all the commands, says this: “Get-UMMailbox | Disable-UMMailbox”
  11. Save the script as a .ps1 file. Michael named his “Redo-UMMailboxes.ps1.” We named ours “UMDialReset.ps1.”
  12. Copy the .ps1 file to your Exchange Server. Run script in PowerShell.

Again, please check Michael’s post for additional details.

I’m also including a PowerShell script we used to remove the old UM Dial Plan. This comes courtesy of Ibrahim Soliman’s Blog.

$UMDialPlan = “”
Get-UMMailboxPolicy | where {$_.UMDialPlan -eq $UMDialPlan} | FL Name, UMDialPlan
Get-UMMailboxPolicy | where {$_.UMDialPlan -eq $UMDialPlan} | Remove-UMMailboxPolicy
Get-UMHuntGroup | where {$_.UMDialPlan -eq $UMDialPlan}
Get-UMHuntGroup | where {$_.UMDialPlan -eq $UMDialPlan} | Remove-UMHuntGroup
Get-UMService | where {$_.DialPlans -contains $UMDialPlan} | FL Name, DialPlans
Get-UMService | where {$_.DialPlans -contains $UMDialPlan} | Set-UMService -DialPlans @{Remove=”$UMDialPlan”}
Get-UMService | Get-UMCallRouterSettings | where {$_.DialPlans -contains $UMDialPlan} | FL Identity, DialPLans
Get-UMService | Get-UMCallRouterSettings | where {$_.DialPlans -contains $UMDialPlan} | Set-UMCallRouterSettings -DialPlans @{Remove=$UMDialPlan}
Remove-UMDialPlan -Identity $UMDialPlan

As with all PowerShell scripts, verify this will work with your current topology before executing it.

Avoid Spaces in Dial Plan Names, and You Won’t Have to Replace Them

The name of a Unified Messaging Dial Plan, stored on an Exchange Server, seems an unlikely place for a space to cause problems.

Yet that’s exactly what happened here. Once we’d removed the old dial plan, added a new one & re-enabled the users’ mailboxes, Auto Attendant behaved perfectly. The customer had their, “Press 1 for Sales, Press 2 for Support.”

It’s always the one thing you didn’t suspect, isn’t it?

If you’re setting up Skype for Business, just as a precaution? Avoid using spaces in your dial plan’s names.

Have you encountered a strange error related to spacing in Skype for Business? Please comment or email in what happened. I always like documenting these errors, in case someone else needs the help later on!

 

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Is Microsoft Positioning Office 365 as the Future of Cloud Voice & Video?

Conferencing, Office 365, Skype for Business, Voice over IP

MS Bolsters Cloud Video, International Meetings and Cortana with New Skype for Business Online Features

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced the next steps for Skype for Business Online. New features, expansions of existing services, and a big step forward for cloud-friendly business users.

It also colors in Microsoft’s 2016 plans when it comes to the Skype4B platform. They want a bigger share of the cloud voice & video space, of course…but the focus is more on Office 365, and less on Skype for Business Server.

What’s Coming – Cloud Video, Cortana as Attendant, More International Meetings

Some of the new features or updates Microsoft announced at Enterprise Connect 2016:

In the Meeting

“Are we both in the same meeting?”
Photo courtesy of stockimages.

Cloud Connector Edition of Skype for Business Server.
This is a pre-configured set of images to run Skype for Business as virtual machines. It facilitates a hybrid setup – on-premises Skype for Business, connecting your office’s existing phones to Office 365.

New Virtual Auto Attendant.
Cortana comes to Skype! The new Auto Attendant is built into Cloud PBX, enabling automated call handling. With speech recognition, of course.

It was hard to find information on this, beyond the overview description. Easy to find requests for it though! Seems like Cortana’s inclusion in Windows 10 drove a lot of interest toward adding her into Skype for Business.

Expanding PSTN Conferencing.
60 countries now. 100 by June. More PSTN Conferencing means international conferences using Office 365 natively. No long-distance charges. (Wait, do we even have those anymore? I’m getting old…)

Cloud Video Interoperability.
I mention this because Polycom is helping Microsoft out on it. They’re integrating Office 365 into their RealPresence Group products, expanding the devices usable with Skype for Business meetings. Not only RealPresence, but other video conferencing hardware from Polycom, Cisco, etc. Stuff that’s already out there, in use.

For the rest of the features, check out the UC Geek’s rundown on the Enterprise Connect announcements. Andrew has plenty of screenshots and nice detailed lists. Worth a look.

Where Will This Take Office 365?

From the look of it, Microsoft is angling for dominance in the “cloud voice” and “cloud video” spaces.

We see a huge emphasis on voice and video with these new features. Both of those services need infrastructure behind them…worldwide infrastructure. Microsoft is preparing such infrastructure, and bringing in partners to expand it even further.

Good moves, especially with the growing customer base in Office 365. VoIP, video and meetings all in 1 place for 1 monthly cost. Makes sense for a lot of small businesses! But it leaves me with a concern about Skype for Business Server.

In the Meeting Too

“Yes, I’m in the meeting too.”
Photo courtesy of Chaiwat.

What Does This Mean for Skype for Business Server?

Skype for Business Server 2015 continues to receive updates. A new update just came out on March 18, in fact: Skype for Business Server 2015 Cumulative Update KB3061064 – Microsoft Support.

That said, aside from the Cloud Connector Edition (which creates a hybrid Skype4B), I don’t see a lot on the horizon. Maybe they’re just tight-lipped about feature additions to Skype4B Server?

Focusing on new cloud features IS in line with Microsoft’s announced strategy, true. I just don’t want them to neglect Skype4B’s server-based users. I’m sure a bunch of us would like Cortana handling our calls too!

Will Office 365 Win Out Over Skype for Business Server? We’ll See.

Of these new/updated features, Cloud Video Interoperability and Unified Management services interest me the most. I’m a big fan of analytics (see my posts on Monitoring Server Reports). More analytics data for Office 365 users? Yes please!

Working with existing video conferencing hardware makes perfect sense, too. Saves on expense, time and frustration. Hmm, maybe I should ask my friends at Polycom for an interview…

Will these new features influence you more toward using Office 365, or not? Please comment or email your thoughts.

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Can’t Add New Users to Persistent Chat Rooms? Approve Them in the Skype for Business Control Panel

Persistent Chat, Reference, Skype for Business

My manager asked me to add a new user to one of our Persistent Chat rooms. Since we hadn’t used this particular room yet, I was happy to do so. (It meant starting up a new project!)

However I encountered a minor issue…in the form of an “Invalid Member” message.

Persistent Chat Invalid Member

Now this was curious. I had no trouble adding the new user as a contact, or talking with him on Skype. Why would Persistent Chat have any objections?

Time to investigate (and document along the way)!

Check if Users are Enabled for Persistent Chat

The particular person is a new hire. Is their account set up in Active Directory? Yes.
Are they able to use Skype for Business? Yes.
Am I able to add someone ELSE to the Persistent Chat room? Yes.

So is the problem with the user account, or Persistent Chat itself?

Let’s check to make sure the user account is enabled for Persistent Chat. You can do this via the Control Panel or the Management Shell. I like the Control Panel myself, but if you prefer the Management Shell, this is the command you’ll use:
Set-CsPersistentChatRoom
[This configures the settings for an existing room, and lets you assign users or groups to the room.]

In the Skype for Business Control Panel, click Persistent Chat. You’ll see four menu options: Category, Add-In, Persistent Chat Policy, and Persistent Chat Configuration.

Under Persistent Chat Policy, we have a Global policy and a Pool policy. Both have Persistent Chat set to Enabled. Which means new users should have Persistent Chat access. Hmmm.

Over to the Category section. We have one pool. I open the pool.

Ahh, what’s this? We defined membership by individual users! If your account isn’t on the Allowed Members list, you don’t get to use Persistent Chat.

Persistent Chat Category

Let’s see what happens if I add the new user, using the “Add” button. (When you click it, you see this “Select Allowed Members” screen.)

Select Allowed Members

I enter the user’s first name, click Find, and there he is! A quick OK, and he shows up in the Allowed Members list. Click Commit to save. All done in the Control Panel.

Now let’s see if I can add him to the Chat Room. First, I open the Chat Room from Skype4B. Then go to More Options and click “Manage This Room.” (You must log in again, of course.)

Manage Chat Room

Then I see the “Edit a Room” window. Under “Members,” I enter the new user’s name, and then click the Check Names button on the right.

No “Invalid Member” error!

I click Commit Changes, and voila!

Chat Room Updated!

Unable to Add Users to Persistent Chat? Check Your Allowed Members List

I’ve also come across a similar issue, where admins aren’t able to add users to Persistent Chat rooms. It comes from adding “Domain Users” to the Allowed Members list.

I found the solution on Georg Thomas’ blog: Persistent Chat, Unable to resolve names or add Members and Managers: Invalid members – Georg Thomas on Skype for Business, Lync and Universal Communications

If you did use “Domain Users” in the Allowed Members list, user names won’t resolve when you add them to a chat room. You’ll have to add individual users to the Allowed Members list (like we do), or use an OU.

Good catch there Georg.

How’s your experience with Persistent Chat? Great value-add, or do you forget it’s there? Please comment or email your thoughts.

 

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Device Review: Plantronics Voyager Focus UC Headset

Third-Party Lync Products, Third-Party Skype for Business Products, Unified Communications, Voice over IP

Over the past 2 weeks I tested a new headset: the Plantronics Voyager Focus UC (B825-M). It’s an on-ear headset built for use with Unified Communications platforms.

Voyager Focus UC – Plantronics.com

Overall, it’s a comfortable, easy-to-use headset. Plenty of good features, and a simple experience in both setup and daily use.

Photo courtesy of Plantronics.com.

Photo courtesy of Plantronics.com.

Let’s start with the headset’s ins and outs.Focus UC Headset on Desk

The Ins and Outs

  • Stereo-earphone headset
  • The headband has a padded comfort strip with elastic inside it
  • Bluetooth connector, no cords to the headset
  • Mic arm rotates for right-ear or left-ear use
  • Active Noise Canceling (ANC) switch
  • Comes with charging cradle, Bluetooth adapter and case
  • On the mic-side earphone, you’ll find a volume control slider and play/pause buttons

The headset arrived fully charged. It recharges quickly as well. I didn’t run it until battery drain, but it easily went 4 hours on my head.

Focus UC with mic arm extended

Mic arm rotated out.

Setup: Zero configuration necessary. I connected the cradle to USB, set the headset on it, and plugged in the Bluetooth dongle. Skype for Business recognized and switched to the headset right away. No driver setup needed.

Normally I would put the device through its paces over the course of a day. Make a bunch of test calls, fiddle with its buttons, etc. But since I had no rush to return the device, I decided to replace my normal headset (Jabra Motion Office) for a week. See how the Focus UC performed in our everyday office environment.

Impressions from Day-to-Day Use

First impressions came from call quality. The Focus UC produces crystal-clear audio for calls, both hearing and speaking. I used it on regular voice calls, Skype Meetings, even a Pandora stream. Everything sounded great.

In terms of comfort, the Focus UC is extremely comfortable! Normally on-ear headphones hurt my ears after a while, but these did not.

The Bluetooth connection is very strong. Plantronics notes 98 feet of wireless range. Now, testing that limit would require me walking all the way across our office park! But I did wander across the office while on a call. Didn’t even hear static.

I found the headset’s controls quite intuitive. For one, it’s easy to switch the mic from one direction (left ear) to the other (right ear). Just rotate the arm around.

The mute button, as well as Play/Pause, respond to a light tap. The volume dial is a rocker – turn it forward to increase volume, turn it back to decrease.

Focus UC Play-Pause-Volume

Adjusting the Volume rocker

The headset does have online indicator lights as well. They’re blue LEDs which appear on the earphone exteriors, to tell others that you’re on a call. I didn’t see them at all while talking (which is exactly what should happen). You can just barely see the indicator light in the photo below.

The Active Noise Canceling worked well, dulling out noise around me. However I found I didn’t need to use it often. The earpieces are a soft, dense foam. They blocked out sound all on their own.

Desiree wearing the Focus UC

One more thing: Plantronics mentions “smart sensors” with the Focus UC. I observed the technology almost right away. Less than 5 minutes after installing the headset, an unexpected call came in. I grabbed the headset and threw it on. I was just about to click the “Accept” button on my screen…when the call suddenly activated. The headset picked up that it was on my head–time to start the call!

Drawbacks

While this is definitely a favorable review, the Focus UC isn’t perfect. I noticed a couple small drawbacks during the tests.

  1. The headset requires 2 USB ports. One for the Bluetooth adapter, one for the charging cradle. I tested it with just the charging cradle; the computer didn’t even see the headset.Not sure why they made the headset like this. It had no trouble working with an external USB hub. But not everyone has those. Why not just build the connector into the cradle?
  2. When seated on the charging cradle, the Headset leans to one side. This can cause the headset to swing around/knock into things, pull the charge connector out, or even fall out of its cradle.

Final Thoughts on the Focus UC

When my week of testing ended, I handed the Focus UC off to our office manager. She needed a new headset, and wanted something wireless so she could move around.

I don’t think anyone will dare taking it away from her now!

Plantronics has a long and deserved reputation for making good headsets. The Focus UC is yet another high-quality, Skype for Business-friendly headset. It’ll work very well for most business users (so long as they have enough USB ports!).

What kind of headset do you use with Skype for Business? Please comment or email your choice. Maybe you have one I haven’t tried yet!

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Slack Adds Voice and Video: The Implications for Skype for Business

Skype for Business, Unified Communications

Slack has announced new voice & video chat features coming to its platform. The voice part, according to TechCrunch, has already rolled out.

From the articles I read, the media frames the announcement as primarily taking on Google Hangouts and Skype (or Skype-C as I like to call it).

But, this will affect Skype for Business users as well. In fact I think it will have a greater impact on Skype4B, since many Slack users are businesses.

Let’s look at what Slack’s telling us about its new features. And figured out what kind of implications these may have for Skype for Business’ users.

Voice Calls Now Another Slack Tool, Video Coming Soon

Slack has introduced Slack Calls, a built-in voice call function within the Slack desktop app and in Chrome.

Slack is famous for its many integrations. You could integrate Skype or Google Hangouts before (and still can). But Slack Calls is native functionality. The team’s admin just has to enable it in Settings, and poof! Everybody can make calls.

Photo courtesy of Josh Constine at TechCrunch.

Photo courtesy of Josh Constine at TechCrunch.

You initiate conference calls by simply inviting more people into the call. Similar to Skype for Business’ “Invite More People” in fact. Which, in both cases, is a clean & easy way to have a group chat.

Adding video functionality is coming down the line. Not sure when, but given how quickly Slack debuted Slack Calls (one day after the announcement!), it may arrive soon.

Why I’m Not Worried About Skype for Business (For Now)

  • Voice is a new tool in the Slack platform. New tools always need bug-squashing time. And it takes time for users to adopt them. Even in such rapid-growth environments like Slack.
  • Text chat never lost its luster. If anything, Slack’s phenomenal growth shows the value younger pros see in text-based chat. It’s fast, clear, and fosters communication even if you didn’t have a phone. The fact that you do now, both in Slack and in Skype4B, means extra options.
  • Competition is great! In terms of feature set & extensibility, the Skype for Business family is a “big boy” in the marketplace. Slack is an “upstart” eating into market share. That sort of activity always promotes healthy competition, improving all offerings.
  • I didn’t see any mention of using desktop phones with Slack Calls. That may come in the future, but for now, Skype for Business still holds a clear edge with its softphones. (I’m testing a new Plantronics headset with it right now!)
  • Slack approached voice in the reverse from Skype4B. From the start, Skype for Business touted its voice & video capabilities. Instant Messaging and Persistent Chat took a back seat, despite my protests. Slack reversed that approach – starting with text-based chat and adding integrations. Now it’s bridging into voice & video. Which means voice is integrating into text chat, instead of the other way around.

You see this in using Slack channels for voice calls. And the ability to communicate on a call using emoji—giving a slack-call-thumbsup instead of interrupting the other person!

What Slack Should Do

Keep going! This is great for Slack’s user base. Voice calls are limited to the desktop app & Chrome for now, but they will surely make it onto their mobile apps.

I look forward to starting a Slack video call with a “/command” and a few clicks.

What Microsoft Should Do

Stay aware of the voice/video communications space around you. They have a powerful player…but it’s not the only one. Slack on its own is strong competition, but they also have Cisco, Avaya and a couple others to think about.

Watching how users choose to communicate is never-ending. It should always lead to more changes. Slack’s success demonstrates this, with its users opting for text+app integrations.

We’ll see where they go in terms of voice. Will Slack users stick with the Skype/Google Hangouts/Bluejeans integration option? Or will they switch to Slack Calls? Pay attention Microsoft. Their decision affects Skype for Business’ future.

The Future is Anyone’s Communications Game

I used to spend a lot of time on IRC, back in the day. It was (and still is) a fast & simple way to communicate. This is why I really admire Slack. They took the idea behind IRC’s popularity and built a super-powered chatting platform.

Obviously I’m not the only one, since Slack has 2.3 million users and 570,000 paid subscribers!

Those numbers alone mean we have interesting times coming for Skype for Business. The platform needs to continue innovating, keep adding to its feature set…or it could see upstarts like Slack take its place.

Which do you prefer for everyday communication: Slack or Skype for Business? Please comment or email your thoughts.

 

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4 Things (Still) Irritating Me About Skype for Business on iOS

Skype for Business

I’ve had a couple months to use the Skype for Business client on my iPhone. While it’s good to have, the client still has some issues which make it troublesome to use.

Since I first installed it & blogged on its feature set in October, Skype for Business on iOS has received 4 updates.

Useful for stability? Definitely. Did they fix everything? Nope.

Since one of this blog’s purposes is to document information about Skype for Business’ workings, let’s talk details. Here are the things that irritate me when using Skype for Business on iOS.

Can’t modify contacts on the phone.

I have 2 contacts on the list who changed employers months back. I deleted them from my Skype for Business desktop client. So why do they show up on my phone? And of course I can’t remove them, since this functionality is not included in the iOS client.

Adding other contacts to an IM conversation is flaky.

When inviting someone into an existing conversation, I sometimes find they don’t show up. Checking afterward reveals that they did not receive the invite. It doesn’t happen every time, but often enough that I can discount the occasional random failure.Invite More People - Skype4B

There’s also a language difference between the desktop and mobile clients which deserves mentioning.

  • If I want to invite more people into a conversation on my desktop client, the button’s label is “Invite More People”.Add Participants Skype4B iOS
  • If I want to invite more people into a conversation on my phone, I must tap the current contact and then tap “Add Participants”.

From a UX standpoint, this is bad. You’re doing exactly the same thing – inviting one or more people – but the language used to indicate the command is different. It can confuse some users and lead them to think such functionality isn’t in the mobile client.

+1 shows up automatically for all calls.

Luca pointed this out in a comment back in October:

“One of the worst change is the new dial pad behaviour ‘+ is automatically added to all Skype for Business for iOS calls’ (https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/kb/3101663) that is a complete mess.”

Definitely frustrating. Every time I want to make a call, I tap the dial pad, then hit Delete, and Delete again.

iOS Skype4B Phone
Not a huge issue, but it gets annoying fast.

Buggy Conversation History.

I mentioned this in my October post too. We’ve had 4 updates since then–and guess what? It’s still buggy!

The iOS client is pretty good about picking up Conversation History from my desktop client. The reverse however, not so much. Occasionally I have found logs in my Outlook Conversation History I knew originated from my phone. However, most of the time phone-based conversations never show up there.

Skype4B iOS Upcoming Screen

For a full list of differences between the desktop and mobile Skype for Business clients, visit this page: Mobile Client Comparison Tables for Skype for Business – TechNet

Why I’m Blogging On This: You’re Not Alone

I’m documenting all of this here for two reasons.

  1. To explain the problems publicly, in case others are frustrated by them too & go Googling for answers.
  2. To wave at Microsoft and say, “HEY! Problems with the iOS client! Fix it!”

If you are experiencing these issues, here’s what I’ve ended up doing with my phone. They’re workarounds, but they do help:

  1. Using Skype for Business primarily for phone calls, not IM conversations.
  2. Only joining meetings on my phone if I’m not in the office
  3. Using the “Upcoming” screen as a reminder for recent conversations (all recent phone-based conversations show up on this screen under “Recent”).
  4. Making note of any important points discussed in an IM or meeting in an email (using the Outlook app)

As I said before, Skype for Business on iOS is not perfect. We’re coming up on the 1-year anniversary of the product family though…really need some improved functionality.

What’s your experience with Skype for Business on iOS? How about Android? Please comment or email. Good or bad, I’d like to hear about it.

 

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Hardware Review: Polycom RealPresence Trio 8800 (Part 2)

Skype for Business

“It makes audio conferencing a visual experience.”

That’s what my colleague Stephen had to say when I asked him about the RealPresence Trio. He, along with the rest of the Lync/Skype4B team, spent some time working with the Trio these past couple weeks.

We’ve gathered our experiences for this blog post. There were a few surprises and snags. But overall, we all came away with the same impression – the Trio 8800 is a powerful conferencing system that works with Skype for Business very well.

Trio 8800

The Trio 8800 Hub.

Audio/Video Quality: Awesome!

As I mentioned last week, we have plenty of bandwidth in the office to test the RealPresence Trio. And test we did – running several conferences internally, with remote participants, audio-only, video-only and audio/video.

The audio quality? “Phenomenal.” Careful not to tap on the table; the hub picks it up! No configuration is needed either.

Video Quality: In JB’s comment last week, he mentioned that he’d occasionally see remote meeting participants’ video freeze up. But only on the Trio – when viewing on a laptop, no freezes occurred. We tested this with two remote participants, but didn’t encounter any freezing.

Now, freezing could occur from any number of factors. I’m not discounting JB’s experience at all; we just didn’t see it ourselves. One remote participant did lose audio once. But their video just kept on going!

One final note here: I’ve written about Music on Hold in the past. With the RealPresence Trio, you can turn it off with a toggle! It’s under Features in the Settings menu. If you’d prefer changing the music, you can do that from the same menu.

Setup: Couple Hurdles, Easy Afterward

I will limit my descriptions here, out of respect for Polycom’s ongoing development. Suffice to say that initial setup was easy. “Straightforward and clean,” as another colleague described. The webcam didn’t even need configuration – we just stuck it to the top of the TV, plugged it into the Visual+, and done.

First off: Update the Trio 8800 to the latest firmware as soon as possible. As of this post, the latest update was released 1-29-16. Jeff Schertz has a blog post on how update the firmware: Updating Trio 8800 Firmware – Jeff Schertz’s Blog. You’ll use the USB ports on the hub to administer the update. CAB files are also listed for download on the post.

Secondly, it’s critical to change the Trio’s base profile to Lync Mode.

Why? The Trio 8800 is set to “Generic” by default. This works only by plugging in a phone. You must enable it for Lync/Skype. The best way to do this, we found, was to use the Trio’s setup webpage.

This is accessible by getting the hub’s IP from your network, and loading it in a web browser. Like you’d do to configure a wireless router.

(This step is NOT in the documentation right now, as far as we could tell. If it is in there and we missed it, please let us know!)

After we updated the setup webpage, we discovered that the Base Profile setting is also buried in the hub’s Settings menu. You’ll find it here:
Advanced Settings/Administration Settings/Network Configuration/Base Profile

The Base Profile has only two choices – “Generic” and “Lync.” You must select “Lync” to use the full Lync/Skype for Business conferencing feature set.

Advanced Settings: Now here’s something very interesting. The Trio 8800 has TWO levels of advanced settings. Which you get depends on the password you enter.

The “initial” level only gives options like Change User Password and Reboot Device. I thought this was a great way to enforce security – users have some control over the Trio’s functionality, in case they get locked out. But they’re prevented from accessing (or even seeing) the “deep” advanced settings, so they can’t break its configuration.

The Base Profile settings are only visible in the “deep” advanced settings.

Ease of Use: As Simple as Skype for Business

I’ll start here by talking about connectivity. The Trio 8800 has USB ports for sharing content, Ethernet for network audio/video, and Bluetooth for device pairing.

Trio 8800 Hub Screen in Icons Mode

I paired my phone to the hub with two taps on the LCD. One to Search Devices, the next to pair the phone. Then I played some music and heard it loud & clear through the hub speakers. The quality was just as good as expected.

Next, let’s talk about the hub itself.

The hub’s LCD screen defaults to a keypad, but you can change it to icons. We kept it on the icons menu; making choices takes less time. Starting a meeting & adding users only takes a couple icon taps.

At all times the hub LCD indicates the Skype user account on the icon menu. If you need the Trio’s conference number, it’s displays on the connected screen (as well as its IP and user account name).

JB from the last post was correct – the hub boots up in a couple minutes, and does maintain its settings. Meaning CypherBit’s desire to “keep it in a drawer and place it on the table a couple minutes before the meetings” is totally doable!

However, the hub does not support touch screens. You can connect a screen to the RealPresence Trio, but it won’t recognize touch. I found this out with my touchscreen laptop.

Privacy Screen: The Logitech cam has a fun little feature – a flip-down privacy screen.

Logitech Cam Privacy Screen

Behold, the privacy screen!

If you’re installing the Trio 8800, make sure all its users know about the screen! Someone who doesn’t know about it may think the cam’s not working when it’s down. Stephen had a good suggestion – put a colored sticker on each side of the screen. Instant recognition of open screen/closed screen.

(If you don’t need or want the privacy screen, you can remove it by unsnapping it from the bottom.)

Visual+ Unit: The Visual+ is basically an HDMI output. It operates separately from the hub, with its own IP. You must pair the hub with it to display on the screen, and connect the cam to it for the video. After setup, we stuffed it behind the TV and that was pretty much it.

Skype for Business/Exchange Integration: Acts Like Another Client (On Steroids)

The Trio’s integration works excellently! The Trio hubs acts as a virtual attendee for joining or managing a conference. You can even set it up as a resource you can book. I’d argue that this is the most efficient way of managing a large meeting.

The LCD has a Contacts list, just like the Skype for Business client. Contacts display their Presence status. Groups do too.

Content Sharing: You can share content a few ways – share from an attendee’s computer, or plug a USB drive directly into the hub. We found it’s best to use a PC for sharing. It’s easier to control the application shown.

Issues: Early-Version Snags

So far, we saw 3 snags with the device.

  1. Sparse documentation. Some data sheets, a FAQ, and some Knowledge Base articles are what’s available. Made setup a little time-consuming. But in fairness, this is a very new product. More documentation will come with time.
  2. Early-version software. Most of the issues we encountered appear like simple bugs. Things you’d expect from an initial software release. Minor frustrations, but that’s all.
  3. Video is limited to the Logitech C390e cam. I understand the limitation here–you’ve got to make sure the hub works with at least one cam, before you can make others work. I note it here just for everyone’s reference. It’s very likely Polycom will add compatibility for additional webcams in future firmware updates.

Verdict: Great Conferencing System with Lots of Usefulness

Our testing experience? Great! Polycom did a solid job with the RealPresence Trio. The audio quality alone makes it worth a look.

For the capabilities you get, the price point is very good too. (You can get pricing on request from Polycom here.) No, we weren’t paid for this post. But I do know some good folks at Polycom (hey Adam!) and appreciate their work.

It IS a new product. You expect a couple rough edges. We expect improvements to come soon – added functionality, support for more webcams, etc. That said, there’s no reason you couldn’t put this in your conference room right now.

I’ll end with an anecdote. We had the Trio 8800 hub on the conference room table yesterday, and another customer came in for a meeting. He asked about the device, so I told him what it did. 2-minute intro kind of deal. I wasn’t actually trying to sell it to him.

Afterward he asked where he could get one. Two minutes was all it took!

We hope this information helps anyone considering the Polycom RealPresence Trio 8800. If you have more questions about the device, or are interested in help configuring it, please comment or email me.

And don’t forget to join us next time!

 

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    The Lync Insider/Skype4B Insider is a blog about the technology we use to communicate in business today. Here we talk about Microsoft's Skype for Business Server 2015, Lync Server 2013, Unified Communications, Voice over IP and related technologies like Exchange Server. Written by Chris W., MCSE in Communication and PlanetMagpie IT Consulting's Tech Writer.
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