Let’s start 2019 with a refresher. 2018 was a busy year, with new content and updates for older, more evergreen content.
In today’s post I’ve listed our the 5 most popular posts in 2018, by number of unique visits.
If you’re a new reader, welcome! I hope these posts help start you on the road to broadening your Skype for Business/Teams expertise. If you’ve been here a while, glad you’re here. There’s plenty more to come in 2019.
The 5 Most Popular Skype for Business Insider Posts in 2018 (in order)
Can You Turn Off Skype for Business New Message Alerts?
This one definitely struck a chord. Many readers commented about their desire to turn off New Message alerts entirely, or control their appearance. Short version: You have some control over notifications when on mobile. But on desktop, you’re kind of stuck.
It seems like Microsoft’s pricing shifts keep accelerating…and obfuscating. The post remains accurate, though I’ll put up another pricing post soon to incorporate Skype for Business Server 2019 and current Teams costs.
Making Sure You See Skype for Business Notifications – No Matter What!
This post talked about SuperToast as a method of guaranteeing you’d see Skype for Business notifications. It has limitations—no Mac version, no guarantee of Teams compatibility—but it does prove useful. Commenters did point out that some businesses ban third-party add-ons as a precaution (and a valid one), which can hamper SuperToast’s usability.
However, I want to note: in April or May of 2018, we had a customer with the same issue. Troubleshooting Point 1, purging an old local cache file & forcing a server refresh, DID resolve the issue. So my meandering helped!
Some of these date back as far as 2014. It’s rather heartening to see older posts still helping users!
Where the Blog Is As Of Now – Some Post Updating, Planning Out a Strong Year
I’ve gone through and made updates to each of these posts. A little additional content, including information from reader comments or emails, etc. New readers will get the most benefit…but if you read one of these posts in the past, it wouldn’t hurt to give it another look!
To give you a peek into my 2019 plans, here are some post titles on the roster:
Pricing for Skype for Business and Teams: 2019 Version
How the Mediation Server Fits into Skype for Business
The Path to Deploying Skype for Business Server 2019 (Series)
The ChatOps War: The Battles Raging
How to Preserve Unified Messaging
Have a topic you want to see covered? Leave it in a comment below, or drop me a DM on Twitter at @PlanetMagpieIT!
MS auto-moving new O365 customers to Teams (no access to S4B Online)
The announcement of Skype4B Server 2019 came begrudgingly. As I’ve said before, I suspect we won’t get any more on-prem versions after this.
We lost one of our office dogs. RIP Patches.
Tumultuous, to say the least. But we’re IT pros. We make things happen no matter what.
What’s Coming in 2019 for the Blog
I know the posting schedule diminished a little this past year. Don’t worry; we’re far from done! Here are some planned posts coming up next year:
A Skype for Business Server 2019 Install Series. We haven’t deployed Skype4B Server 2019 internally yet. But it’s on the docket. Once we do, I’ll blog about everything I can involving the setup, deployment, capabilities, and snags.
Teams Integration/Sunsetting of Skype for Business Online posts. A monumental change coming…what will its aftershocks result in? We’ll all find out.
Software & Device Reviews. I love doing these! Thanks to Yealink, Modality, and Plantronics/Polycom for sharing your hard work with us.
Collaborations. I’d like to do more collaborations in 2019. We’ve done a few in the past here, and they came out great. Are you a fellow tech blogger? A Microsoft tech with years of experience? Let’s talk! Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
No poll this time. But if you have thoughts about the state of Skype for Business/Teams, please feel free to share.
Merry Christmas to IT Pros Everywhere!
We at PlanetMagpie hope everyone has a safe & happy holiday! We’ll see you back here in January, refreshed and ready for another year.
As always, if you have a topic you’d like to see addressed in 2019, please share it with us.
Today I’m reviewing the Yealink SIP-T58A desk phone. Like its little brother (which we reviewed last time), this is a softphone designed for Skype for Business users. I put it through the same paces as the T56, within the same Skype for Business deployment.
Not surprisingly, it had very similar results. But they’re not identical phones…and they aren’t meant for identical uses.
As promised, I’ve included some use cases in this post. Instances where one phone works better than the other. Consider this post as a ‘Part 2’ to the previous post.
Ready? Let’s get to the T58A review!
The Yealink T58A is, like you’d expect, just a slightly more feature-rich iteration. It has the same dimensions as the T56A, the same desk footprint, and the same standardized phone layout with touch screen.
Here they are side-by-side. Can you spot the difference?
Hint: Look at the touch screens.
Design-wise, the only notable difference between the T56 and T58 is that the T58’s screen is adjustable. In nearly every other aspect, they are identical.
Because they’re so similar, I took a little more time with this model. Just in case it had any quirks only prolonged use reveals.
(Impromptu test: I accidentally dropped the handset before I could connect it to the cord. Luckily, nothing bad happened! It didn’t even scratch on our concrete floors.)
I did face the same sign-in challenge on the T58A as I did the T56A. It’s set to accept only Trusted Certificates by default. My contact at Yealink says they do this as a security measure. So it’s not really an issue as I said before…I can certainly envision topologies where this makes sense.
“You can easily turn your SIP-T58A smart media phone into a video phone ready with an optional removable two-megapixel HD camera CAM50.”
The T56A doesn’t have this slot available. A co-worker commented on the camera slot’s use of USB. It meant you could also plug a USB cable in, moving the camera to a better angle if desired.
It is a USB 2.0 slot, by the way.
Now we know why they made two models. One can take a video expansion module; the other cannot. This makes for a huge difference in use cases. I’ll go over that in a moment.
Please note: This is the SIP-T58A model. That means its camera works with SIP…NOT Skype for Business. Another phone version does that.
That said, let’s go through some testing!
Using Skype for Business on the T58A
Like its brother, the T58A shows favorited Skype contacts on its Home screen. The options, and simplicity of use, are the same too.
I also discovered that both models preserve account details. I disconnected both the T56A and T58A from PoE. Left them idle for a day. Then plugged them both into another PoE cable at a co-worker’s desk.
Both models saved my Skype4B account login. I only had to unlock the phone, and poof, there’s my Presence status & contacts. Nice going on this one Yealink.
Call Quality: Almost an exact mirror to the T56A. One thing I did notice was that the “Noise Proof” technology came through a little better on the T58. That could be due to my listening for it, though.
Voicemail: In a stroke of good luck, I had several voicemails come in succession one day. (Murphy’s Law, you walk away from your desk, and everybody calls…) This gave me a chance to test out the voicemail controls more heavily than before.
You reach voicemail on the T58A through its “Menu” button.
I tried both ways of dialing into voicemail:
Dial in, then pick up handset
Pick up handset, then dial in
No trouble either way.
Bluetooth: The Yealink team encouraged me to test out Bluetooth on the phone. I had to update the firmware in order to do this; the version shipped with the phone didn’t have Bluetooth enabled yet.
(NOTE: A new firmware just came out a few days prior to my review. If you buy a Yealink after reading this, your phone’s screen will look different.)
Once I’d updated, Bluetooth appeared as a rocker switch in Settings. You can enable Bluetooth and WiFi from the Web admin menu, or directly on the phone.
From there it’s the typical pairing process: Open the Bluetooth screen on the phone, wait for BT devices to show up in the “Available Devices” list, and tap to pair.
I paired my Jabra Motion Office headset. I keep its base wired to my laptop dock. To test, I disconnected the base from my dock, so it couldn’t field calls coming from my laptop.
Shortly afterward, two calls came in. The Jabra started beeping right away, just like it normally does.
I did notice a slightly shorter ‘walking range’ while taking these calls though. When my Jabra takes a call from the laptop, I can walk clear across the office and still have a nice clear call. When my Jabra took the calls through the T58, I got a little crackle of static when I walked about ten feet away.
Nothing huge. All in all, the phone did a good job of working with my Bluetooth headset.
Issues: Security/Hacking Concern
A reader messaged me after the T56 post went up. “Yealink phones get hacked all the time. Don’t use them!”
I checked on this, and did find several reports from people dealing with hacked Yealinks. All older models though. I searched specifically for the T56A and T58A, but didn’t come across hacking reports on them.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Far from it! But the reader’s warning raises an extremely important point, not just about Yealink phones:
Whenever deploying a new VoIP phone, no matter the manufacturer, make sure it’s fully secured before issued to the user.
Default passwords changed. Firewall in place. Logging enabled. Ports closed. It’s another computer on the network…thus, a potential cyberattack vector. Treat it like one.
Use Cases for the T56A and T58A
Given how similar these phones are, it took me a while to determine separate use cases. They’re both solid phones, with an extremely useful Web administrative menu per device.
I did though! Here are some use cases where each of the Yealink T-Series phones would serve well.
Run-of-the-mill desk workers.
Compliance-heavy workstations, if regulations prohibit display of certain materials in a video feed. Even accidentally.
Multiple branch offices, in a bulk deployment (especially if you manage the branch offices’ IT remotely).
Common Area Phone. Both models have a CAP function in their settings. I prefer the T56 here since it’s a simpler device with no video.
T58A: All of the above, as well as the following.
Branch Management phones, for frequent conferencing.
Sales/Marketing team phones, for quick video calls.
Customer Service phones…in case you really want to embody ‘customer-facing’!
Small-team conferencing phone (though Yealink does have a series of conferencing phones, called the “CP Series”).
You have multiple offices, but similar communications needs (which means you can standardize deployment & save time/money).
The Verdict: An Easy-to-Use, Expandable Desk Phone for Power Users
Now that I’ve completed my reviews, I handed the T58A over to the co-worker I mentioned last post. His turn to play. He’ll also put the phone through its interoperability paces, in our own network and at customer sites. It has to work within our security parameters before he’ll sign off on customer use.
I do like the T58A’s video expansion option. But I personally don’t use video much. It’s a nice-to-have for standard users. For power users though, it’s necessary. Which is why I say power users would get more value from the T58A than the T56A.
Time for a new device to review! This time we have a new desk phone: the SIP-T56A from Yealink. Matt at Jenne.com kindly sent me this unit for review, after we expressed interest in the Yealink line.
The T56A is designed for Skype for Business use. It does support expansion modules, as well as Bluetooth & Wi-Fi connectivity, and plays nice with Office 365.
Would Yealinks serve as a good alternative to Polycom phones, if we couldn’t get a Polycom (or the customer didn’t like them)? Will they stand up to the daily grind? How well do they work with Skype for Business?
Let’s find out!
I unboxed the T56A as soon as it arrived. Pulling it out, I did a quick comparison to the Polycoms we have around the office. The T56A weighs about the same as those, but it’s wider. You’ll need a little desk space for it.
It’s a pretty straightforward phone console. Buttons for hold, transfer, volume, mute, etc. Build quality’s solid; nothing about this feels flimsy or loose.
The phone comes with a big touch screen attached. You can’t adjust the touch screen on the T56, but at least it’s low-glare. You can lower its brightness too, under Settings > Basic > Display > Backlight.
The T56 doesn’t need a separate power adapter if you use PoE (but one is optional). I plugged this in to a PoE network cable.
Issues: Signing In
The phone booted as soon as I plugged in the PoE cable. It brought me to a nice simple start window within about 20 seconds.
Once the phone finished startup, it brought me to a Sign In menu right away. I had three choices: An Extension/PIN sign-in, a Skype for Business sign-in, or a Web sign-in.
(Side note: Since the phone sent me straight into Sign In, I didn’t realize for several minutes that I could just hit Back a few times and reach the phone’s main menu!)
Now, here’s where I had the one issue. I had some difficulty getting signed in. It wanted me to use an extension and PIN at first, but I didn’t have those. (I did try my previous phone’s extension and PIN, but alas, no use.)
Next I opted for the Skype User Sign In. We run Skype for Business Server 2015 on-prem, and this phone used a PoE cable to connect. Should be no problem at all, right?
I entered my sign-in address (email), username (the same email), and my Skype4B password. Took me a couple tries to figure this out; the instructions didn’t specify the format.
When I did get the right combination, I saw the following error: “Cert web service not found.”
Hmmm. Did we have an issue with our on-prem Front End? I checked with the Consulting team. No, the Front End’s fine.
I checked online and found the solution: In default settings, the T56A only accepts Trusted Certificates. This can inhibit initial sign-ins, even on secured Skype for Business Front Ends.
The phone also has a Web administrative menu. You access it by entering the phone’s assigned IP into your web browser, like most such devices (e.g. “http://192.168.1.1”). The instructions contain the default login & password for this admin menu.
The fix involves disabling the Trusted Certificate Only option in the admin menu, under the Security tab. Once I did this, I discovered a very handy shortcut. Instead of returning to the phone and re-entering my login, I could sign into Skype4B right from the admin menu!
All I had to do was click the Account tab, enter my login & password, and boom. The phone recognized the sign-in and displayed its main screen. Ready for testing!
Using Skype for Business on the T56A
The T56A main screen shows favorited Skype contacts. You have a bottom toolbar with four options: Favorites, History, Contacts, and Menu. Menu gives you the Calendar, Voice Mail, Status, Setting, and Meet Now buttons. All styled consistently with Skype for Business.
The phone’s DEAD-simple to work with (heh heh). I replaced my normal desk phone, a Polycom CX300, with it to test out. I anticipated some learning curve, of course…it would take me a couple days to familiarize myself with the different ways to make & handle calls, right?
Nope! Within minutes I had this phone down. Unlock PIN set, favorites configured, and I know where & how to change my Presence status in two taps.
I connected my Jabra Motion Office headset to the T56A as well, using the headset port on the back. No configuration necessary.
Now, the most important aspect of a phone: Call Quality.
Since I replaced my Polycom with the T56A, it handled all my calls for the past week. The handset is marked HD, and judging by call quality, it’s true. Everyone’s voices came through as clear as could be, whether co-worker (internal) or customer (external).
(Even the recorded spam message came through nice and clear. No idea how they got my number…)
To illustrate the call quality, let me draw a comparison. When you talk with your co-workers on one device, and then switch to another, you can tell which device is clearer, can’t you? You already know their voice. Your brain knows how they should sound. So when one device carries their voice sharper than the other, you notice.
That’s what happened during my T56A testing. Voices came through sharper on the T56A than on my prior phone (the Polycom CX300).
I found out afterward that this happens, at least in part, due to Yealink’s “Noise Proof” technology. The phone actually blocks out background noise while you’re on a call. I’ve seen this demonstrated on other phones before. The fact that I didn’t think of it until well after my calls says Yealink did a good job with their own version.
The Web Admin Menu: Yealink’s Secret Superpower
The Web administrative menu is incredible on these phones…I can configure every aspect of the phone from my browser. From changing ringtones to upgrading firmware.
Not only does that save a HUGE amount of provisioning time, it means I can totally avoid hunching over the phone, tapping out letters on the touch screen.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s great that the T56A has a touch screen in the first place. The screen has a good response rate, analogous to an Android smartphone. But if I can save a few minutes typing on my laptop’s keyboard, so much the better!
Having a comprehensive Web admin menu makes a big difference for IT professionals. It means we can provision devices remotely, with ease.
All we need is the phone’s IP address when it’s plugged into the network. The IP address is under Settings > Status. With that, we can take care of Skype for Business configuration, security updates, directory control, and so on. The user just has to plug the phone in!
The Verdict: An Excellent Desk Phone for Skype for Business Users
I showed the T56A to a colleague. He handles hardware deployment for most of our Skype for Business customers. Most of the time he deploys Polycom phones, with Jabra or Plantronics headsets.
He saw what this device can do and his eyes almost popped out of his head! “Why didn’t we have this before?!” He started throwing out names of customer sites where he could place them. I stopped him at #5. He could have kept going. Coming from him, an IT pro who’s worked with dozens of device manufacturers over the past 25 years, I consider that high praise.
The poor Director server role. No longer needed by Teams, its primary function usurped by Azure AD for Office 365…Microsoft’s march into the future seems to have passed right by it.
Now, this is not the first time Microsoft has left a server by the digital wayside. But I have a special place in my heart for Directors. I like the concept, and what it embodies, Looking at the Skype for Business/Teams ecosystem now, I thought Directors would join Microsoft Bob and Small Business Server on the trash heap.
But I found a little light instead…one instance where it does still make sense to deploy Directors in today’s world. Let’s find out what that is!
What a Director Does, and How Skype for Business Changed Around It
I first wrote about the Director way back in 2012: What’s the Director For?
I characterized it as a sentry on the castle walls. Permitting only legitimate Lync/Skype for Business users entry.
That’s what a Director does—it provides authentication for users, so the Front End Server/Pool doesn’t have to. The Front End carries on with facilitating calls, Meetings, etc. while the Director handles authentication.
Now, the Front End CAN handle authentication requests as well. It never needed the Director. Having a Director server/pool helped in two ways:
Ease congestion on the Front End Server/Pool, which often translates to better call quality & Meeting stability.
Defend against DoS attacks targeting the Skype for Business Server. Not a common threat, but a growing one in recent years.
So the analogy still holds. You can still use a Director as a sentry, defending your Skype for Business deployment.
Which is what Microsoft’s done. By first offering a Hybrid deployment option with Office 365, then introducing Teams and beginning to fold Skype for Business Online into it, Microsoft’s slowly pulling the rug out from under Directors.
What about authentication requests though? How will Teams and Office 365 manage all those requests in your tenants?
Skype for Business Hybrid and Teams: Director’s Role Usurped
Since Office 365 tenants handle authentication through Microsoft’s cloud-based Azure Active Directory, they don’t need on-prem authentication from a Director. But what about hybrid deployments?
In most hybrid configurations, authentication’s done through on-prem Active Directory and Azure AD. Azure AD syncs to your on-prem Active Directory server, providing a built-in failsafe. Directors become superfluous.
To configure your deployment for hybrid with Skype for Business Online, you need to have one of the following supported topologies:
A mixed Lync Server 2013 and Skype for Business Server 2015 deployment with the following server roles in at least one site running Skype for Business Server 2015:
At least one Enterprise Pool or Standard Edition server
The Director Pool associated with SIP federation, if it exists
The Edge Pool associated with SIP federation
A mixed Lync Server 2010 and Skype for Business Server 2015 deployment with the following server roles in at least one site running Skype for Business Server 2015:
At least one Enterprise Pool or Standard Edition server
The Director Pool associated with SIP federation, if it exists
The Edge Pool associated with SIP federation for the Site
A mixed Lync Server 2010 and Lync Server 2013 deployment with the following server roles in at least one site running Lync Server 2013:
At least one Enterprise Pool or Standard Edition server in the site
The Director Pool associated with SIP federation, if it exists in the site
The Edge Pool associated with SIP federation for the site
“If it exists.” In other words, the Director is not critical to these hybrid topologies.
What about Teams? Since Teams will absorb Skype for Business Online anyway, does Teams need a separate authentication server?
No. It’s not designed that way. Even if it was, as a fully cloud-based application, Azure AD will handle the authentication. A Director isn’t listed anywhere in the Teams dependencies for guest access…only Azure AD.
(Whether or not Azure AD handles guest accounts & user expansion WELL is up for debate…but we’ve talked about that already.)
It’s safe to say that for Office 365 and Teams, Azure AD usurped the Director’s role. That leaves us with one other potential use: the upcoming Skype for Business Server 2019.
Edge Servers, standalone Mediation Servers, and Director: 6-core, 2.4 gigahertz / 16GB RAM / 8 or more 10000 RPM disks or SSD / Gig NIC/ dual Gig NIC for Edge
These may seem steep. But they’re almost identical to Front End Server requirements; the only exception is that Front End needs 64 GB RAM.
I can see many admins using requirements to justify dropping Directors from their 2019 deployments. In truth, our IT Consulting team hasn’t installed a Director in any Skype for Business deployments (on-prem or hybrid) since early 2017.
However, after some discussion and brainstorming, I realized the Director is in Server 2019 for a reason. One Skype for Business topology does exist where a Director helps.
The One Deployment Topology Where a Director (Still) Makes Sense: Director on Guard
Here’s my “Director On Guard” topology. The deployment must meet all of the following characteristics:
Installing Skype for Business Server 2019
More than 2 office locations
The company has suffered a cyberattack in the past
Why these? I’m so glad you asked.
An enterprise business will want the control and security they can exert over data trafficked within Skype for Business. This also gives them control over their phone system.
More than 2 locations means branch servers to maintain the call network. More than 1,000 users means thousands of authentication requests every single day.
A cyberattack? Nothing makes cybersecurity more important than suffering a cyberattack. (I wish this on NOBODY, but it’s a tragic reality of our world.)
In this case, the Director serves a purpose. It performs its original function of handling authentication requests, taking load off the Front End pool and preserving bandwidth. All worthwhile performance goals, which makes IT look good to the budget-conscious C-suite.
A Director also provides additional guard against cybercriminals. Post-cyberattack security improvements go a long way toward securing the network, and user workstations. The Director performs a similar role within the Skype for Business ecosystem—a central component of the enterprise business’ communications.
It’s doing its time-honored job…being a silent sentinel, ready to admit those who have authorization, and defend against those who do not. Hence my terming it, “Director on Guard.”
If we don’t get an on-prem Skype for Business version after 2019, it’s likely the Director role will fade with it. That’s okay…it’s done its job. But for now, don’t count the Director out yet. With cyberattacks on an upward swing, all systems need protection. Including Skype for Business.
Do you still use a Director in your Skype for Business deployment?
I decided to revisit the topic after seeing that in my analytics. What kind of Linux-based tools did we get (if any) since then? I’ll include Teams in this post too, since that’s where Skype for Business is (mostly) heading. Let’s see what the Linux landscape holds, shall we?
The Big Question: Did Microsoft Make a Skype for Business for Linux? Will They?
Given the dearth of results, I don’t think we’ll ever get a full-version Skype for Business Linux client. But that doesn’t mean we close the door. Other options do exist, in varying categories of usability.
What kind of tools are out there? Desktop clients do exist. Web apps as well, in case those don’t work or have too few features. Let’s not forget the Android platform as well…more people use Android than iOS worldwide.
Linux-Based Skype for Business Tools, and How Usable They Are
The Web App installs a browser plugin to work. Said plugin, unfortunately, only works on Windows. You can install a Windows VM and use the Web App. But at that point, you might as well install the desktop client! As such, this is a ‘just barely’ option.
2. Tel.Red Sky Linux App
Tel.Red has built & maintained a Linux client for Skype for Business for several years. They call it Sky Linux. There’s a free version with call limits. Full versions costs $49/year per user…quite reasonable.
I put this in the “not bad” category. It DOES work, in most cases. It’s missing some meetings-related and call-related features though, such as delegates and video-based screen sharing.
3. Pidgin+SIPE Plugin
This solution lands in the “OK, a bit clunky” category. As I mentioned in the 2014 article, the Pidgin IM client has a Linux version.
It does not natively support Skype for Business communications. For that, you’ll need the SIPE plugin.
With the two working in tandem, you can connect to Skype for Business servers and chat. One caveat though…the SIPE plugin hasn’t received an update since February of last year. Which means it may not like working with the newest sharing & meeting features. Your mileage may vary, depending on configuration.
Still, it’s a good effort, and I want to commend the SIPE developers for their work. Add-ons like these can fuel huge growth in software capabilities—something very worth our support!
4. Android App
This goes in the “Best Option” category. You’ll get the most features and the easiest install/configuration.
The app does have limitations of course…you can’t present a program from Android, do Consultative Transfer, or use meeting tools like the whiteboard. (In fairness, the iOS app has most of the same limitations.)
Its latest version seems plagued by login troubles though. Frustrating, but the app still beats other options for native Linux functionality.
What About Teams on Linux? Much More Accessible
When it comes to Linux, Microsoft Teams is another matter. Because Teams runs in the Azure cloud, you can get to it in a browser on Linux. You may not have full feature access though; our good friend Tom Arbuthnot reports that Teams doesn’t have audio/video support on Linux. You may get audio if you use Chrome, according to Tom’s comments.
Microsoft says a native Linux client for Teams is “on the backlog.” Which explains why it doesn’t show on the O365 roadmap either.
While I’m glad Teams works on Linux, it appears the Android app carries even more functionality. So your best bet for Teams on Linux is to use that!
Teams Made Further Linux Progress Than Skype for Business
In the 2014 post I joked that more Skype-related development would come…mostly from the Linux community. Now, I wasn’t wrong! But with Teams eventually supplanting Skype for Business, and Android apps getting more focus, Microsoft’s definitely paying SOME attention to the Linux side of things.
That said, we have a Windows desktop client for Skype for Business and Teams. We have iOS and Android apps for Skype for Business and Teams. We do not have a native Linux client for Skype for Business or Teams. Will we get one? Maybe for Teams. For Skype for Business? Probably not.
What’s your Linux/Skype for Business/Teams situation?
UPDATE 3: A commenter pointed out a Github project: Teams for Linux (Unofficial). Essentially, a wrapper for the Teams Web app. It has several known issues, but does provide a desktop alternative for Linux users. Thanks developers!
Microsoft has released Teams as a free offering. No Office 365 account required. But how viable is it as a standalone chat app?
That’s what we’re looking at today. I’ve setup a fresh Teams account for testing. We’re looking at how useful it is for everyday communications, what limits exist compared to Office 365’s Teams, and how this may or may not affect Skype for Business.
I will share this up front – I don’t think a free Teams harms Skype for Business at this stage. But it may harm another Microsoft property.
Setting Up a Free Teams Account
Normally, Microsoft requires you to use a Microsoft Account with its offerings. In the case of the Team free offering, they’ve relaxed this requirement. They only require “any corporate or consumer email address.”
I do have a Microsoft Account for my work email, of course. But I decided against using it for this test. Why? I read some comments on TechCommunity indicating a problem with registering a free Teams offering, and then later trying to set up Teams in Office 365. If you use an email associated with an Office 365 tenant already, or one you may associate in the future, Teams will try to set you up in Office 365 instead.
There’s also this comment by Microsoft’s Albert Chen, which references a one-Teams-only limitation for email addresses:
We may just have a growing pain here. But I opted not to take the chance. Instead, I used a Gmail account I set up years ago for Google-related reports at work. That way I don’t cause any trouble if the office decides to move to Teams later on. (Which we might…)
Setting up “Teams Free” is very simple. Head to https://products.office.com/en-US/microsoft-teams/free and enter your email address. The setup is entirely guided and only takes a few steps, so I’ll skip detailing it here. Suffice to say it’s no more difficult than signing up for a new Skype Consumer account.
Once I’d completed setup, clicked the Get Started link in the welcome email, and downloaded the Teams desktop app? Off to the races!
Features and Limitations in Teams Free
At first glance, Teams Free looks exactly like its Office 365 brother. To a large degree, they share feature sets. But, with any free offering, you’d expect some limitations…and Teams is no different.
Unlimited Chat? Check.
Teams Channels (as many as you want)? Check.
Activity Feed? Check.
File storage/sharing? Check. Third-party add-ons? Check.
Audio and video calls? Check and check.
You have your choice of desktop and/or mobile apps. Even our little buddy T-Bot shows up. In terms of everyday chat and calls, Teams Free works just like Office 365 Teams.
What’s NOT Available:
According to the Teams Free page details, the free version does NOT have:
Exchange email hosting
Custom email domains
Full-version OneDrive, SharePoint, Planner, Yammer, and more Office 365 services
Finally, it has a file storage cap of 2GB/user (with a max 10GB of shared storage).
Most of these limitations make sense. Teams Free operates outside of the Office 365 ecosystem (technically), which means no direct access to shared services and email functionality. The rest seem meant to restrict the file storage needed on Microsoft’s side. As well as provide incentive to upgrade!
Teams Free’s Effect on Skype for Business: Negligible
My question is, will Teams Free hurt Skype for Business Server? I don’t think so. Consider the differences in setup, and the feature approach each takes.
Simpler Setup. The setup process for Teams Free roughly equates to Slack’s in terms of time. That is much faster than Skype for Business setup, but they have different audiences. Skype for Business Server addresses comprehensive communications needs for larger businesses. Teams and Slack, however, target smaller businesses who move fast & prefer chat apps just as quick.
Small-Business Features vs. Enterprise Capacity. Teams Free has a 300-user limit. Skype for Business Server does not. Companies using Skype for Business Server likely have regulatory compliance requirements. Teams users likely don’t.
If anything, Teams Free will hurt Slack’s user base. With a fresh, free offering, Microsoft may lure existing Slack users away from their paid accounts. The timing may even capture some soon-to-be-former HipChat & Stride users.
However, I can’t say Teams Free won’t hurt another Microsoft communications tool…
Will This Hurt Skype? That May Be the Plan
Microsoft’s offering Teams Free as a chat platform for everyone. They can send messages, call people, even do video. All it takes is an email address. Sound like anything else to you?
Sounds like Skype Consumer to me. Which may be the point. Microsoft may want to reduce Skype Consumer’s use in the workplace by wedging in Teams Free.
In total, releasing Teams for free accomplishes three goals:
Competing more directly with Slack
Attracting more people & businesses to the full Office 365 suite
Luring small businesses & some individuals away from Skype onto Teams
Why do Goal #3? I think because it feeds into Goal #2. Many businesses use Skype Consumer for day-to-day communications. It’s free, it works (well enough), and it’s simple to use. Now we have Teams Free, which meets all those criteria and even expands on the feature set.
Does this mean Microsoft will shutter Skype Consumer? It’s possible…but I wouldn’t hold my breath just yet. They have bigger moves to make.
Teams Free is Late to the Battle, But Don’t Dismiss its Power
There’s one more factor to consider in Teams Free adoption: Existing Teams users. Smaller businesses may opt to cancel their Office 365 subscriptions and move to Teams Free, if they don’t need all of the features full-version Teams offers. Add in Slack or HipChat/Stride users who didn’t want to buy into the Office 365 ecosystem before, and Teams Free may build up its user base via poaching.
The ChatOps War continues to rage. It’s already claimed casualties. Teams Free is up against entrenched opponents. But it presents a good-enough-for-most feature set and a stable platform. The coming months may see quite a leap in its adoption.
Are you using Teams Free in your business? Please share how well it works for you in the comments!
By now you’ve likely heard about Atlassian’s shuttering of its HipChat & Stride products. The decision has many implications, from Atlassian’s future as a company to the ChatOps space worldwide.
Other bloggers have asked important questions about this move. How will this affect Slack users? Will Stride users go to Slack or jump ship to Teams?
All valid questions. But in this post, I’d like to ask a few others. Questions which came up during my own reading. Some already have answers. Most don’t…those will come with time, as the shuttering takes effect & the market responds.
I’m documenting these 6 questions here for discussion’s sake. If you currently use HipChat or Stride, you have a decision to make before 2019. I hope these questions help you tackle it.
Any & all feedback welcomed…particularly from current HipChat/Stride users!
Six Questions We Need to Ask about HipChat & ChatOps as a Whole
The Developers Question. HipChat is, as I understand, popular with developers. Particularly developers who work on Atlassian products. Finding another chat platform is easy for a developer…but will Slack try to make them welcome? Developer discussions can get very technical, with code snippets and live testing on the fly.
Atlassian-friendly developers will need an environment that contributes to their work, via app integrations and workflows. How well the Atlassian/Slack partnership works will make a big difference.
The Mid-Market Question. ChatOps products like Stride, HipChat, and Slack are popular among mid-market companies as well as enterprises. Yet I’ve seen enterprises as the exclusive focus for most of the current speculation.
In our own experience, this is where ChatOps are taking root. More mid-market customers come to us asking about chat platforms like Teams than the reverse (us introducing them to chat).
Will Slack actively court those mid-market companies? I know Teams does this. And you can bet other chat platforms will too.
The Question of Atlassian’s Other Products. I saw a few angry tweets after this announcement. HipChat/Stride users feeling betrayed. Not wanting to go to Slack; if they wanted that, they could have done so months prior.
Nothing says they have to move to Slack. But what if after the February cutoff, they abandon the entire Atlassian product base?
Teams does have Add-Ons for integrating Atlassian tools like Trello and Jira. You can also duplicate much of their functions with other Add-Ons or cloud services. Even so, this could end up hurting Atlassian’s overall product base. I would NOT encourage this (I like Trello!) …but it’s undoubtedly possible.
The “Work Processing” Question. I came across this in a CMSWire article covering the announcement. I quote from the section titled, “‘Work Processing’ Tools Emerging”:
Boyd noted that despite enterprise collaboration tools like Slack, Teams and Facebook grabbing headlines, a new generation of document-centered tools — Quip, Notion.so, Slite, Nuclino, and others — are gaining steam. He calls them “work processing” tools. They support shared documents with styled text, embedded objects (tables, videos, images), tasks and checklists and social affordances: threaded comments, internal notifications and messaging.
“In this approach,” Boyd said, “documents are not just dumb files with styled text, sitting in a cloud file system. Instead of relying on work chat communications, which are only structured by channels and search, work processing relies on a system of documents to structure company information and discourse. This can also be integrated with work chat, or may include work chat internally. A trend to keep an eye on.”
I fiddled with Notion.so a little. It’s similar to a Wiki, using Markdown and simple workspaces. Since it’s document-based, not chat-based, this sort of tool represents a totally different approach from Slack or Teams. (I may do a more in-depth comparison in the future; it’s got a certain appeal.)
These newer products may tempt people away from Slack into a leaner, more all-in-one workspace. It may become a wild card in adoption/migration.
The Privacy Question. I’ve mentioned HipChat Data Center when talking about the Redis Cache, and the Skype4B Quagmire. Like Skype for Business Server, one of its biggest advantages was the privacy benefits of on-prem deployment.
Now we have one less option for those companies who require on-prem data control.
You do still have Skype for Business Server 2015/2019, of course. But with its future uncertain, some might see switching off HipChat to Skype for Business as a risky bet.
“But Slack protects your data privacy too!” Correct! So does Teams. The issue here isn’t what privacy protections exist…it’s whether companies will accept cloud-based privacy vs. on-prem privacy they control. It’s a comfort issue, not a technical one.
Finally, the Mattermost Challenger.Mattermost competes with Slack, but is open-source. Any organization can deploy it, either in a private cloud or on-prem.
Here’s the kicker. Mattermost also integrates with other Atlassian products: Jira, Bitbucket, Trello. It not only competes with Slack, it can directly target the HipChat/Stride users Atlassian wants to shuttle over to Slack.
Setting up Mattermost requires a little more technical know-how than Slack, which may get in the way of courting HipChat/Stride users. Nevertheless, more tech-oriented companies may consider jumping ship to Mattermost instead.
Predictions for Post-Discontinuation (Feb 2019)
As I like to do, I’ll close with some predictions. In light of questions like these, what will happen after HipChat & Stride go offline in February?
The majority of Stride users will switch to Slack with little fuss.
A large portion of HipChat users will move to Slack as well.
A small percentage of companies running HipChat Data Center will continue to do so, even without Atlassian support.
Trello, Jira, and Confluence will all suffer drops in usage. Since users have to abandon HipChat and Stride, some companies will abandon all Atlassian products at the same time.
Teams/Office 365 will see a small boost in user growth after February, from those HipChat/Stride users who don’t want/can’t use Slack.
“Work Processing” tools like Notion.so will see growth on an organic basis. The HipChat-to-Slack transition won’t have much of an effect.
Did you know you can add third-party add-ons to a Teams channel? Let’s see what happens when you do!
Microsoft calls these add-ons “Teams Apps.” They work like Chrome browser add-ons…a way to integrate third-party software into the Teams experience.
They even have their own app store: AppSource – Microsoft Teams
(You can also view Apps within Teams, by clicking the “Store” button in the left column.)
For this blog post, I installed some Teams Apps in our internal Teams channels and tested them out. I went with some fairly simple Apps, but you can find much more complex ones in AppSource.
I chose Asana and MailChimp for this test. Asana is a project management tool. We already use Asana in our office, so it’s a natural choice. We switched from MailChimp to Campaign Monitor years ago, but we know plenty of businesses who still use & love MailChimp. (Plus I still have a MailChimp account for testing!)
Installing Apps into Teams
Apps are connected to Teams channels, not the overall Team. Installation is pretty darn easy…just a few clicks to select, grant access, login to the third-party account, and voila!
First, the steps for installing Asana.
Next, installing MailChimp.
Now, the next big question—how do we USE these Apps?
It actually depends on the App. For Asana, we only need to configure the Asana projects the App will monitor. Whenever someone creates or comments on a task within those projects, we get a notification in Teams.
Zero effort. Plus, getting notifications like this shaves one window off your daily checks.
MailChimp will display campaign performance reports, likewise eliminating a window to check. Connectors like these simplify the workday by consolidating information flow into the Teams channel.
Other connectors, like Help Scout (updates from customer support emails) or Pingdom (notifies you about website incidents) facilitate add-on services from within Teams. You may need additional configuration.
Caveat: Apps Can Overwhelm Your Channel
The old adage is true…you can have too much of a good thing. In this case, too many Teams Apps can blot out normal conversations.
Most Apps automatically notify the Teams channel when their event is triggered. Asana will report a new task, or MailChimp will pop up a new campaign performance report. The automatic setup lends convenience. But the more you use Asana and MailChimp, the more frequently you get notifications in Teams.
It’s easy to see the problem. One notification-clogged Teams channel, coming right up!
Of course, you could create a fresh Teams channel and assign App notifications to it. But then you’ve just created another checkpoint for yourself and your team. Instead, I recommend limiting the number of Teams Apps you’ll need. Only add the ones whose notifications add value to your conversations.
Use Teams Apps Whenever They Help You Stay Productive—And Don’t Disrupt Everyone Else
When deciding which Teams Apps to add, consider the whole team’s priorities & daily activities. Does everyone use Asana? Then chances are everyone will spend time in Asana anyway. You don’t need to add it to Teams. Conversely, if half the people on this particular Team use Asana, then adding the Teams App helps them save time and doesn’t cause too much disruption.
If you use many other online services, but only need to interact with them occasionally (e.g. Pingdom only sending alerts when a site’s down), then adding them as a Teams App makes sense. Provided they HAVE a Teams App, that is. Not everyone does yet.
Still, there’s plenty of choices in the AppSource already. Go take a look!
In said post I reviewed a notification app called SuperToast, made by Modality Systems. It remains one of the blog’s most-read posts today. Evidently lots of Skype for Business users miss notifications…
The other day, Louise at Modality asked if I’d like to review the new, redeveloped SuperToast V3. Of course I was happy to do so!
What is SuperToast?
The SuperToast app sits in your taskbar. Every time you miss a Skype for Business call or Instant Message, SuperToast displays a notification popup with details about the missed event.
SuperToast notifies you of missed Instant Messages, incoming audio/video calls, and missed audio/video calls.
The notification windows only displays the first message someone sends. If for example you receive 4 messages in succession from one person (as my co-workers sometimes do), you’ll only see one SuperToast notification. Which is smart—nobody wants a stream of popup windows blocking other work!
The SuperToast settings could not be simpler. Here’s the entire settings window.
You choose which communication types for which you want to receive SuperToast notifications via checkboxes. That’s it.
What’s New in V3
The new SuperToast has two main improvements over old versions.
Full support for the latest Skype for Business clients.
Notifications appearing despite you being active in the conversation window
Not bringing the conversation window to the front when clicking on a notification
The UI is largely the same as before. Which helped it fold back into my day-to-day routine almost immediately. But after a few weeks’ testing, I can say V3 is more stable now.
Two Versions: Single-Use and Business-Wide
SuperToast comes in two versions:
SuperToast One is a single-user version.
SuperToast for Business is a business version with central management.
SuperToast One has a few limitations the Business version doesn’t. You can’t customize SuperToast One’s look & feel, no central admin, etc. Pretty much what you’d expect for a single-user.
SuperToast One costs $7/year. SuperToast for Business costs $7/year for 5-99 users, $5/year for 100-999 users, $2.50/year for 1000-2499 users, and $1/year for 2500+ users. So no matter which version you buy, or how many, you’re only paying a few dollars a user per year. You even get 24-hour support with this too.
Modality developed this app to support Skype for Business users. Like us, they didn’t like missing notifications from co-workers or customers. The app works with Skype for Business Server and Online (O365) deployments.
Lync 2013 users still hanging on? SuperToast will work for you too.
That said, here’s a brief mention of SuperToast’s limits. It has 3 that I can determine:
No Mac version yet.
I am not certain if SuperToast will work with the Teams desktop client.
As many commenters pointed out on my 2016 post, this IS a third-party app. Some organizations block third-party apps from user’s devices on security grounds. That is perfectly valid—we see malware apps all the time on customer PCs!
In such cases, I’d recommend using SuperToast for Business. Its central management and Modality’s reputation should dissuade any security concerns.
I do know that Modality continues to work on SuperToast. We may see these limits resolved fairly soon. If I hear of timetables for such, I’ll update this post accordingly.
Super for Putting Missed Calls/Conversations in Front of Your Eyes
SuperToast is a single-purpose app. It does one job…and it does it well. Plus it’s cheap to buy. I always like simple apps like this; they don’t require a high learning curve, and provide an immediate benefit.
For those who miss a lot of notifications in the course of a workday, SuperToast makes for a quick, valuable solution.