Browsing the archives for the Unified Communications category.

Four “Real-World” Updates Now Available for Skype for Business Server

Conferencing, Exchange, Instant Messaging (IM), Skype for Business, Unified Communications, Voice over IP

Microsoft has released a June 2016 Update for Skype for Business Server! It contains 4 new features:

  1. Video Based Screen Sharing
  2. Multiple Emergency Number
  3. Busy Options
  4. Offline Message

All of which struck me as having something in common: They’re all very useful in real-world office scenarios.

Accordingly, I’ll define them using examples of office scenarios today! Let’s dive in and see what Microsoft has given us.


Scenario: “When Beth shares her screen, the meeting gets slow and jerky.”
Solution: Video Based Screen Sharing

How Video Based Screen Sharing Works
When you install the new update, Video based Screen Sharing (VbSS) equips your Skype for Business Server to use UDP in its screen sharing. Previously, screen sharing used RDP. This should give a performance boost and help Meeting quality, even on lower-bandwidth connections.

Video based Screen Sharing for Skype for Business Server 2015 – Microsoft TechNet

Best of all, you don’t have to configure anything! VbSS is enabled by default.


Scenario: “We have people visiting from the UK office this month. They won’t know our phone system.”
Solution: Multiple Emergency Number

How Multiple Emergency Number Works
Just like the name implies, Multiple Emergency Number enables you to set multiple emergency numbers using PowerShell. It’s a location policy update which you control.

The major value here is for larger businesses with international workers moving between locations. Let’s consider a business with 2 offices: one in the U.S., and one in the U.K. Each office has a Site in Skype for Business. Each Site’s location policy has its own local emergency number. For the U.S., emergency is 911. But in the U.K., it’s 999.

Using Multiple Emergency Number, you can add multiple masks for all other site’s emergency numbers. In order to add 999 as a mask in the U.S. Skype location policy, you’d use these cmdlets:

$a = New-CsEmergencyNumber -DialString 911 -DialMask 999
New-CsLocationPolicy -Identity [YourID] -EmergencyNumbers @{add=$a} -EnhancedEmergencyServicesEnabled $True -PstnUsage [emergency PSTN usage]

Saves training time, and makes everyone a little safer.

There’s many other ways you can use Multiple Emergency Number. Have a look at its TechNet page for examples: Multiple emergency numbers can now be set in location policy in Skype for Business Server 2015 – Microsoft TechNet


Scenario: “X is calling. I really can’t (or don’t want to) talk to them right now.”
Solution: Busy Options

How Busy Options Works
Busy Options is a new voice policy. With it installed, you can configure Skype for Business to give callers a busy signal if they call someone who’s already on a call, or send them to voicemail. The person called then receives a notice in their inbox for either a missed call or voicemail.

Some of this functionality already existed in Skype for Business Server. Busy Options expands upon it. Conferencing, Team Calls, and Response Groups all benefit from it. Each gains several options–for example, users in conferences can still new conference invitations. But new peer-to-peer calls are rejected according to their Busy Options settings.

In terms of applicability, the documentation indicates that you can enable Busy Options down to the single-user level. But, doing so for an entire enterprise is more commonly referenced.

Installing & configuring Busy Options is more involved than the other updates listed here. I’ll link to the Deployment page to make things easier: Install and configure Busy Options for Skype for Business Server – Microsoft TechNet


Scenario: “Bob is offline again! I need to send him this.”
Solution: Offline Message

How Offline Message Works
Offline Message leverages Exchange Web Services to send messages from a Skype for Business client to another user’s Exchange mailbox. If the user is offline, the message gets stored with Exchange. Effectively, it allows you to send messages to someone who’s offline.

When you do, you (the sender) will see a notification like this:

Offline Message Alert

Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

They (the recipient) will see an orange dot on their Conversations icon. Just like the red dot on the iPhone’s apps, it means, “Hey! You have missed messages!”

To enable Offline Message:

Open the Skype for Business Server Management Shell.
Run the following cmdlet: Set-CsImConfiguration -EnableOfflineIM $True
To confirm, run: Get-CsImConfiguration
Finally, confirm that the “EnableIMAutoArchiving” property is set to True with Get-CsClientPolicy. Otherwise Offline Message won’t work. (It should be set to True by default, but make sure.)

Enable or Disable Offline Instant Messaging (IM) in Skype for Business Server 2015 – Microsoft TechNet


New Skype4B Tools to Make Everyday Office Work Easier

We’ve installed these on our Skype for Business Server as of this post. Testing has already commenced! So far I’ve received one Offline Message. If any snags come up, I’ll make sure to document them here.

Which of these “real-world” updates do you think will benefit your company the most? Please comment or email your thoughts. And we’ll see you next time!

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The Skype Meetings Tool: Free Videoconferencing, But Do We Need It?

Conferencing, Office 365, Skype for Business, Unified Communications

I was all set to talk about Skype for Business’ user experience today…and Microsoft went & debuted another Skype tool. Now I have to see what this is about!

Introducing the free Skype Meetings tool!

You’ll find a write-up at Microsoft’s Office Blogs: Introducing Free Skype Meetings – Office Blogs

Naturally I have questions.

  • What kind of features are we getting with this tool?
  • How does it stack up to Skype for Business?
  • Does it integrate with anything?
  • How well does it work?

So of course I signed up. And pestered co-workers into helping me test Skype Meetings. Here’s what I found.

How to Get and Use the Skype Meetings Tool

You don’t need a Skype Account to use Skype Meetings. A quick signup with your business email address will do.

The app is two-part – you sign up on the website, and then download the Skype Meetings app.

Skype Meetings App

Running the app will prompt you to accept the auto-detected audio & video settings.

Skype Meetings Settings

After that, you can start up your Meeting (or join an existing one) right away.

But you also get an email asking you to verify your address…and set a password…before you can go to your Skype Meetings account page.

Skype Meetings Account Password

Skype Meeting Account

Features Included

Most of the Skype for Business Online Meeting functionality is included.

  1. Built-in Instant Messaging (IM)
  2. A Meeting-specific URL
  3. Join the Meeting on any device
  4. Whiteboard
  5. Screen Sharing
  6. Upload & share PowerPoint files

Skype Meeting

Near-identical UI too. If I didn’t know where the missing features were, I wouldn’t miss them. Which is good for non-experienced Skype for Business users…easier adoption.

Skype Meetings’ Limitations

However, the app definitely has its limitations. Those features I noticed missing? Here’s the list of what’s NOT included:

  1. Scheduling Meetings
  2. Adding more than 10 people in a Meeting*
  3. Recording
  4. Polls and Q&A
  5. IM-to-Meeting
  6. Dial-in (can use Skype Meetings on your cellphone, but you can’t call into the Meetings)

Without these features, Skype Meetings is geared toward on-the-fly Meetings. It does essentially the same thing as Google Hangouts.

There’s also the issue of signup. The Skype Meetings page says people can meet “without a subscription.” That’s true…but they can’t just click a link and jump into a Meeting. Invitees must ALSO enter their business email and download the Skype Meetings app. Just to join the Meeting. It only takes a few steps, but still.

*Even the ability to add 10 people to a Skype Meeting is restricted. After 60 days of use, Meetings are automatically limited to 3 people max!

The Big Concern

The big concern we had was with Skype Meetings’ built-in restrictions. It is its own product, and you’re essentially on a timer from Day 1.

Does it integrate with anything? Yes…with Office 365. To gain any more features – or to add more than 3 people in a Meeting – you must upgrade to an Office 365 subscription.

Will Skype Meetings connect into Skype for Business Server? No. They are separate products. There’s no upgrade path from Skype Meetings to Skype for Business Server either. (Unless you just stopped using Skype Meetings and installed Skype for Business Server, of course.)

An article on TheVerge.com put it succinctly:
“Skype Meetings is designed to entice small companies to pay for Office 365.”

Final Thoughts: Nice for What it Does, But It’s a New Entry into a Popular Field

How best to view the new Skype Meetings tool?

As a way to introduce people to Office 365?
As a single-purpose tool for impromptu online meetings?
As a Microsoft-based alternative to Google Hangouts?
As a bait-and-switch, if you’re feeling cynical?

Skype Meetings is all of these. It does its one job and does a pretty good job of it. We experienced no stability issues or disconnects. Even screen sharing only produced a 1-second delay.

That said, there are other options for quick-and-simple free videoconferencing. Google Hangouts, WebEx, GoToMeeting, Zoom, etc. If Microsoft is hoping to grab market share away from these with Skype Meetings, it’s in for a fight.

Where do you see Skype Meetings working best in your office? Please comment or email your thoughts.

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Does Skype for Business Fit into Microsoft’s Bot-based Future?

Instant Messaging (IM), Persistent Chat, Skype for Business, Unified Communications

Everyone’s talking about the LinkedIn acquisition. Microsoft spends $26 billion to acquire a company, no matter how big, people notice!

Naturally I wondered about what this might mean for Skype for Business. We can already surmise LinkedIn’s profile information will appear in Office 365 apps. Will LinkedIn feeds inform Skype for Business Online too? Will Cortana pop up during a Skype conversation, offering LinkedIn information on that one person you just mentioned?

At this point, speculation runs rampant. With good reason—even Satya Nadella isn’t quite sure where working with LinkedIn will take them.

(Seems like $26 billion is a lot to spend without a crystal-clear path to the future, but it’s not me making the decisions…)

However, my attention got quickly diverted by other news. News, it turns out, that may address Skype for Business’ future more directly.

I do think Skype for Business has some big changes in store from Microsoft’s acquisitions. Not from the LinkedIn acquisition though…from another one.

A Magic “Wand” Might Fit Skype for Business into Microsoft’s Bot Plans

Microsoft Boosts its Chatbot Future By Acquiring Wand Labs – Fast Company

Synopsis: Microsoft bought Wand Labs, a tiny startup working on connecting up different apps & services. The Wand apps use “a messaging interface to let you perform a variety of collaborative tasks.”

Bot-enabled Smart WatchHmmm. A chat/messaging-based system for integrating disparate tools. If you tied that sort of functionality into some communications software, you’d get a system that can reach you anywhere needed.

You could even activate conversations right at the moment you needed to talk to someone. Through a quick message, or a voice call…ooh, maybe even chat. Microsoft happens to have a product like this…

Microsoft now has LinkedIn, a massive social network with lots of business conversations & employment data, as well. How would they work all this together? What would be the value?

According to the latest speculation—bots!

Fast Company talked about Microsoft’s plan to build bots & agents into its software. For those who don’t know, bots are a semi-autonomous software app which performs a set of tasks at your behest. Agents are similar, but use a deeper access to your personal information to help you organize & perform your work.

With the Wand acquisition, Microsoft has the technology to spread bots & agents across its entire platform. Wand software connects the apps. Skype for Business provides voice and chat functionality. Azure facilitates the bots.

Consider this example: On the Wand Labs website, they show how one person can share access to their home’s Nest thermostat, to another person, from their phone. Now envision that kind of technology within Skype for Business. Instant desktop sharing from any app? Pull a Skype contact into a group text? A lot of possibility here.

4 Predictions for Skype for Business Using Wand in the Future

This is me making predictions, I know. One never truly knows how accurate a prediction will be. But it’s fun to do, and I’ve had a pretty good track record so far!

So here goes. Four predictions on what Skype for Business may move toward, using Wand Labs technology and (maybe) LinkedIn tools.

  1. Cortana entering Skype for Business. She’ll listen for file requests, remind you of meetings, issue notices to Persistent Chat subscribers, etc.
  2. The Wand Labs system bridging Skype for Business’ Instant Messaging and/or Persistent Chat into LinkedIn’s systems.
  3. New bots in Microsoft’s platform using Skype for Business-style communication independent of the full install.
  4. Skype Call functionality appearing in LinkedIn profiles. Great option to connect with someone fast, but still protecting your phone numbers.

Only time will tell just how extensive the integrations will become. I’d rather like #2. But #4 might tread on some LinkedIn users’ privacy. Privacy, in fact, may become the big issue going forward. I’ll keep an eye out for changes related to both Wand and LinkedIn.

What do you think will come out of Microsoft’s latest acquisitions? Please email or comment your thoughts below.  Got a prediction of your own?  Let’s hear 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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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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Presence is Dead? I Think Not!

Instant Messaging (IM), Skype for Business, Unified Communications

A tweet on Tuesday led me to an interesting NoJitter article:  The Death of Presence – NoJitter

It’s a thought-provoking read. The author asks a potent question – “How valuable is Presence, really?”

The article talks about a new technology from Cisco, called Spark. Cisco has decided not to include Presence in Spark. Deeming it “irrelevant”.

Well, what is Spark then?

According to CiscoSpark.com, it’s a messaging platform with “everything you need to work together everywhere.” File sharing, phone calls, IM, video meetings…hmm, sounds a bit like Skype for Business! (And Slack, and Google Hangouts…)

Except without Presence. Now, my immediate thought was, “Cisco will use this to differentiate themselves. That’s why they did it.”

But I gave it some more thought. I can see the case made against Presence here.

Despite its omnipresence throughout the Microsoft software ecosystem, Presence is often ignored when trying to communicate with someone. The notion of, “I need this information from Steve, right now!” outweighs “Is Steve available? Need to ask him a question.” At least in many people’s minds.

There are situations where Presence does not add to communications either. A single office environment, for instance. Everyone’s right there. A quick email, call or visit solves the problem.

However, I think Presence’s problem is one of familiarity, not laziness. I’ll explain with a story.

The Secret to Loving Presence: Relating It to Workday Stresses

Late last year, I tried a change in my Skype for Business training sessions. Before that, I would explain each Presence status type, and then relate it to the contacts in the contacts list. It worked, but people were more interested in the Call Options discussed afterward.

Instead, I tried jumping from explaining “Available” to explaining the difference between Busy and Do Not Disturb.

(Reminder: people can still contact you when you’re set to Busy. They cannot contact you when set to Do Not Disturb.)

The first time I mentioned this, I noticed an employee’s reaction. We’ll call him Bob. Bob sat in the training with his phone in hand, thumbing through something on it. Emails, texts, I didn’t know. I did know he looked bored sitting there.

But when I mentioned people not contacting you when set to Do Not Disturb, he lifted his head. “What?” he said, interrupting me. I repeated myself, talking directly to him for a moment.

This got his interest. He listened intently for the rest of the training.
Why? Because he realized the power Presence has.

Those messages probably distracted him all day, every day – a constant stream of “I need X! I need Y!” If he could shut those off, even for a little while? It would mean quiet. Wonderful quiet time. Time to accomplish things. Time he could control.

"Status Green. I am Available."

“Status Green. I am Available.”

So, I made a point to include this Busy/Do Not Disturb difference in all my future trainings. And sure enough, people kept responding to it.

They liked how Presence related to their workday stresses. Helped them mitigate some. How using it really did help them to get stuff done.

Presence Also Helps When Co-Workers Aren’t In the Next Cubicle

Other situations make Presence valuable too. Specifically, when your co-worker isn’t right next to you, or you can’t look at them. Branch offices, remote workers, international teams, call centers, etc.

When people are spread out, they can still communicate (thanks to technologies like Spark and Skype4B). But the real-time nonverbal interaction – eye movement, body language – is not there. Same if we can’t look around, like people in a call center. (I have friends in a couple. They tell me things…)

So we must rely on other cues to navigate the workday.

Presence makes for an excellent cue. It’s visual, it’s immediately recognizable, and with the “What’s happening today?” line filled out, it’s actionable at a glance.

Good Thing to Consider, But Presence Isn’t Done Yet

I’m glad for this NoJitter article. And for Cisco’s move, even though I find it a little premature. It pays to reconsider the tools we use, to see if we can get more value out of them. If we can’t, or we don’t see any need, then maybe it’s time to move on.

But I think Presence has plenty of life left in it.

How often would you say you actively use Presence in your organization? Please comment or email. I’m curious just how much Presence is helping you…or not!

 

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December Poll Results, and What to Expect for the 2016 Skype4B Insider

Office 365, Persistent Chat, Skype for Business, Unified Communications, Voice over IP

First off, I have to say Thank You to everyone who responded on the December poll. Not only did we get a healthy variety of answers, we had several emails from readers sharing how this blog helped them out last year.

Glad to help!

As I promised, let’s go through the poll results. See what we can tease out in terms of Skype for Business 2015’s reception.

December Poll Results: More Stability, Better Performance Needed

We had more than 60 responses to the poll. The #1 improvement request was “a stable, less bloated client”.

While we can all agree that stability is critical, I’m actually not surprised. Consider: Microsoft created Skype for Business 2015 from the merging of two disparate systems: Skype-C and Lync 2013. It was necessary to preserve the Skype-C user base’s expected features, as well as Lync’s broader capabilities.

I pretty much consider Skype for Business as “Version 1” of this new platform. It will, over time – hopefully not too much time! – grow more stable and sharper. (The bloat however, well, anyone’s guess.)

The next most-requested improvements were: RGS, Persistent Chat and Enterprise Voice (in that order).

RGS: I’m guessing performance is the major snag for most of you. If so, you’re not alone. We only use a handful of Response Groups (call flow after-hours, Support team, emergency reporting line, etc.). So far as I know, none have dropped calls or damaged audio clarity.Performance is Slow as...

However, I see both of these occur sometimes for clients. One in particular worked out of a high-rise office building, and shared Internet access with other businesses in the building. As a result their available bandwidth fluctuated. Like you’d expect, this caused some issues with dropped calls or poor audio quality–but only when Response Groups directed the calls. Normal calls were rarely affected. We wound up installing a backup Internet pipe to shore up their bandwidth, and the problem went away.

Persistent Chat: One Persistent Chat issue I have is with its performance. With our on-premise Skype for Business server, IMs are real-time. Same with calls. Video performance is good. But Persistent Chat…it draaaags. Sometimes I can’t even open a chat room. So for this one, I’m right there with you guys!

Enterprise Voice: I’m curious as to the issues readers have encountered here. Enterprise Voice does take some configuration up-front, but it’s one of our most stable Skype for Business services. If you voted for Enterprise Voice needing improvement, please comment or email with your setup details. I’d love to hear what kinds of hardware are used, available bandwidth, what kind of configuration you have, etc.

(As always, we will never share any of your Skype for Business details with anyone else for any reason!)

Along with these, we had several user-submitted responses. Things like IM notifications, Mac client features, and so on. Thanks for these! I’ve made note of all of them. Look for responses, and (hopefully!) some good solutions, in future posts.

Speculations on Skype for Business in 2016

Given all this feedback and Microsoft’s 2015 actions, I shall now speculate on what will happen in the Skype4B field in 2016.

We do have 2 new certification exams coming:
70-333: Deploying Enterprise Voice with Skype for Business 2015 (beta)
70-334: Core Solutions of Microsoft Skype for Business 2015 (beta)

From the descriptions, these exams are quite thorough. One devoted to the ins and outs of Enterprise Voice, and the other to Skype for Business setup & configuration.

Office 365 Services from MSOne thing I note here is a relatively scarce mention of Office 365. It’s referenced twice on 70-333, on configuring integration with ExpressRoute or Edge integration.

This leads me to my first speculation: Microsoft will continue pushing a hybrid or cloud-only Skype for Business solution as a preferred option for businesses. The new features, like Cloud PBX, strengthen Microsoft’s hand in the VoIP marketplace. It makes perfect sense to update their certs…but we know which way they’re headed.

Of course, it doesn’t mean they’ll abandon Skype for Business Server and its clients.  The Skype for Business client for Mac is coming. I believe we’ll also see updates to all other clients. Stability improvements for sure; feature add-ons, I hope. (Deleting voicemails on my iPhone, please?)

Sadly, I don’t think we’ll see a Linux client. At least not an official one. We’ve received comments on this very blog about Pidgin plugins for Lync services. I’m hoping to hear back from Mr. Andersson about his work, so I can test it out!

Which brings me to my final topic.

What to Expect from The Skype4B Insider Blog in 2016

For the past several years we’ve published 1 new post a week, usually on Wednesdays. One never wants a blog to go stagnant–then readers get bored and drift away. Now that it’s 2016, maybe it’s time for a change.

I’m debating a move to fewer posts per month (say 2), in favor of longer, even more technical instructions. Good solid posts, in the vein of Jeff Schertz’s and Matt Landis’ blogs.

Or we can stick with the current schedule. This one I’m leaving up to you, our readers.

What do you think? Would you like fewer and more detailed posts per month? Or are we good to continue on this schedule? Please comment or email your thoughts. If you have other suggestions for the Skype4B Insider, by all means, send those too!

And of course, don’t forget to join us again next week. Until I hear from enough of you (one way or the other), we’ll continue on our regular schedule.

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The SBC and Its Role in Skype for Business

Skype for Business, Third-Party Lync Products, Unified Communications

Today let’s talk about the SBC.

I’ve mentioned SBCs here in the past, on the Lync Add-On Hardware post last year.

A new prospect reminded me of the SBC, as their situation will require one for interoperability reasons. They have several different types of VoIP phones scattered between 3 locations.

(Disclaimer: PlanetMagpie is a Sonus Partner. We use their SBCs for Skype for Business deployments, as well as our own Skype4B server. They didn’t ask me to write this though!)

That said, the reminder spurred me to a thought. “Have I gone into detail on what an SBC does yet? No, I don’t think so. Well, that’s this week’s topic then.”

What’s an SBC?

SBC stands for Session Border Controller. It’s a discrete hardware device which sits in the edge network. There, it

looks at each SIP packet going between your Skype for Business Enterprise Voice network and the external ISP. It determines which packets should be allowed through, and which route they should take.

Server Rack

What Does an SBC Do?

SBCs provide multiple security and mediation services within a VoIP environment.

Let’s say you have two phones – one onsite in your network, one offsite. Bob at Offsite picks up the phone & calls Jane at Onsite. This VoIP call is called a “session”. The SBC looks at Bob’s incoming call, determines that it’s legitimate, and lets it through to Jane. Hence, “Session Border Controller”.

Taking on this role helps stop a lot of bad things from happening. Within a Skype for Business deployment, SBCs can:

  • Protect the network from Denial of Service attacks, spoofing, and other outside attacks
  • Enable SIP trunking
  • Support interoperability between different endpoints (e.g., different VoIP phone types, as I mentioned in the opening above)
  • ‘Transcoding’ calls – Changing the codec used in a call, depending on the session type (audio, video), device type (tablets, laptops, phones), and bandwidth available

Why Would I Need an SBC in my Skype for Business Deployment?

Does your network suffer break-in attempts or DoS attacks? The attackers will target your Skype for Business network too. No question. It needs protection. SBCs are good for that.

Do your people ever call out? There’s no guarantee the SIP endpoints (VoIP phones) will talk to one another. Each phone can have a different bit rate. And if they do, they can’t connect to one another properly. Unless you use an SBC to bridge them (a process called ‘transrating’).

These are the two biggest reasons for an SBC. More exist, depending on your network configuration & security.

Okay then, what SBC should I use?

Right now, according to the Telephony Infrastructure for Skype for Business page on Office TechCenter, only two session border controllers are certified for Skype4B use.

Oracle Net-Net 3820
Sonus SBC 2000

(The Lync Server 2013-approved SBCs will work too. Here’s the full list.)

The Sonus SBC 1000 will also work for Skype for Business; we’ve tested it and the 2000 in small business deployments. Both of them do the job nicely. For Lync Server, we have several 1000s running at customer sites.

You CAN run Skype for Business (or Lync Server) without a Session Border Controller. It’s not mandatory. But it is helpful.

Want more? Sonus has kindly published a simple guide on using SBCs.
Ebook – Session Border Controllers for Dummies

I also like the Skype for Business guide: Ebook – Skype for Business for Dummies.

Both provide good overall explanations for Skype for Business and SBCs.

Do you use a Session Border Controller in your Skype for Business Deployment? What was the primary reason? Please comment or email your thoughts.  And join us again next week!

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2014 Reader Survey: What are Your 2015 Lync Plans?

Lync Server 2013, Skype for Business, Unified Communications, Voice over IP

It’s the last Lync Insider post of 2014! Hope everyone’s Christmas shopping is done and the workload is light.

It’s been quite a year for the blog. Add-ons coming out. Big announcements. Lots of updates & fixes. Lync is out there in a big way and getting bigger. Each month, over 20,000 readers visit the Lync Insider, and we’re grateful for all the conversations we’ve had.

Here’s a few of our most popular 2014 posts (in case you missed them!):

2 Surveys in 2 Minutes – Please Tell Us Your Lync Plans!

We’ll return to our regular posting schedule in early January. But what should we start with? What directions should we go next year?

Well, why not ask our readers these questions! If you’ll spare 2 minutes, please answer the following 2 surveys about your Lync plans. The results will inform our 2015 posting schedule.

===================

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 16-12-2014 09:13:57
end_date 10-01-2015 23:59:59
Poll Results:
What is the most useful Lync service? (Choose up to 3)

===================

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 16-12-2014 09:13:57
end_date 10-01-2015 23:59:59
Poll Results:
What are your Lync-related plans for 2015?

===================

We had 67 votes on our last poll…can we make it to 100 for these two?

As always, if you have a question or want to share a Lync story, please comment on a post or email me. PlanetMagpie is always happy to help business users with their Lync (or other!) support issues.

I just received a comment about Chat inside an add-on, in fact. (Paul, I’ll answer your question as soon as I’m able!)

The Blog Name Change – Decision Made

Thank you again, to all of our readers. We asked you what you thought this blog should be named, since Lync itself will change its name in 2015.

After reviewing the poll results and talking it over amongst ourselves, we decided that the blog’s name will be…

The Lync Insider.

We will stay with the name you already know. But! We’ll have other changes coming to reflect the Skype for Business changes.

What will they be? Well, you’ll have to come back to find out!

Subscribe via email with the signup box at top right, for weekly post emails. Many of you already have this year…and we hope many more will join us next year!

Until then, Happy Holidays to all, and have a safe New Year.

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    The 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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