Browsing the archives for the Unified Communications tag.

Device Review: Plantronics 5200 UC Headset

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

Some time back I reviewed the Jabra Motion Office headset. Since then I’ve tried out a few other headsets with our Skype for Business clients. While most had good sound quality, none really competed with the Jabra.

Until now.

Meet the Plantronics 5200 UC Headset bundle.

It includes the Plantronics Voyager 5200 headset, a BT600 Bluetooth adapter, and a charging case.
Voyager 5200 UC Bluetooth Headset System – Plantronics

Plantronics 5200 UC Unboxed

Time for another review!

Initial Impressions

When I first took the headset out of its box, I found it neatly ensconced in a black plastic case. I thought right away of travel. This headset design appears to emphasize mobility; it’s a small foldable headset in a portable case. Everything you need fits in the palm of your hand.

The Headset
As you see in the photos, the headset has a rotating eartip and boom arm. Left- and right-side usage is just a matter of turning the eartip. The boom arm curves outward, putting it away from the cheek. As I have a beard, this works great both for comfort and clarity.

The earpiece is thicker in the back. I thought this would weigh on my ear more, but the opposite was true–it balanced the rest of the headset better.

Voyager 5200 UC Headset

Plantronics claims a 7-hour battery life. Mine seems to hover at 6 hours. Still plenty of talk time.

On/Off and Volume buttons are raised and easy to use. You get the click-click push against your finger (otherwise known as “haptic feedback”) when you press one.

Voyager 5200 Buttons 1
Voyager 5200 Buttons 2

The boom also has 2 buttons: one for Mute and one for Call Controls. The Mute is easy to find – it’s the red button on the boom arm. You saw it in the second and third images, above.

The Call Controls button is harder to find – it’s on the very back edge of the boom arm.  It’s colored black, the same as the boom arm.  (You can see it if you squint at Image #3 above!)  I actually didn’t know it was there until I found it by accident while holding the headset.

Plantronics likes to mention that the boom arm has 4 mics in it.  They wanted the 5200 to sound clear even if you’re walking.  The 4 mics help to eliminate wind feedback (that whistling sound you get when you’re talking in a breeze).  The mics do this job well.

The Case
The case is solid plastic with 2 charging connectors built in.  One connects when you lay the headset within the case.  The other stands the headset upright for quick retrieval (for those “I wasn’t expecting a call quick grab the headset!” moments).  This upright cradle also has a magnetized base, so the headset seats itself.

Plantronics 5200 UC Case

The case also contains its own battery.  Plantronics states that you can charge the headset twice off the case’s battery before it exhausts.

To test this, I unplugged my case and left the headset on all day.  Its battery wasn’t quite dead, but I put it in the case and went home (without plugging the case in).  Came back in the morning, and sure enough, the headset was fully charged.

Talking

To test speaking and listening quality, I used the Voyager 5200 with:

  1. Skype for Business on my work laptop. The Bluetooth adapter took only seconds to install, grab the headset’s details, and change my Skype default device. I made several calls in the office & to customers using it. Now, I’ve used my Jabra headset for months now. While talking with everyone on the Plantronics, nobody said anything about my voice quality. Or appeared to even notice I was on a different headset. I’d consider that a great result for voice quality.
  2. Skype-C (Consumer Skype) at home. I plugged the Bluetooth adapter into my home desktop, since I have Skype installed there. In less than a minute I was talking with a friend over Skype with the headset. My friend commented that my voice “sounded clearer than the last call.” (I had previously used a freestanding Snowball microphone.)
  3. iPhone 6. At first the headset would not pair with the iPhone. I had to turn Bluetooth off/on, and then hold down the Call Controls button. Then I got it to pair. Calls worked fine from then on, with the same sound quality as in Skype.

Plantronics offers an app for desktops, iOS and Android for its headsets. It’s called Plantronics Hub (you’ll find it in the App Store). It’s not required to use the Voyager 5200, but it’s a nice add-on.

Issues

As with all things, sometimes I run across a couple issues. While the Voyager 5200 is undoubtedly a great headset, here are the issues I came up with from it.

  • The Call Controls button is not as easy to use as Jabra’s Motion Office headset. It’s close, but the location and color make it less visible (as noted above).
  • The included USB cable is very short (less than 5 feet long, I believe). This limits where you can put its cradle. It’s standard mini-USB though; no problem replacing it. I used a 6-foot generic cable and it worked fine.
  • The eartips are not the most comfortable. I tried all three, and the middle one works best in my ear. However, even that doesn’t seat too well in my ear. Feels like there’s still a space between the eartip and my ear. If I don’t get it exactly right, people sound like they’re talking at me through a breeze.

Voyager 5200 Eartips

The Verdict: My New On-the-Go Headset

Thanks to its sturdy case, I can put the Plantronics 5200 UC in my laptop bag and not worry about it. It comes with me to customer sites, and sets up in seconds for Skype calls. Sound quality is excellent.

I can even leave it on for long periods and not have a sore ear afterward!

When I’m in the office I’ll continue to use my Jabra, since it has its nice cradle with a tiny screen. But when I’m on the go, I’ve got my Plantronics 5200 UC.

What headset do you use with Skype for Business? Please comment or email your responses. If you have your own experience with the Plantronics Voyager 5200 UC bundle, we’d love to hear those too.

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How to Train Users on Skype for Business

Conferencing, Instant Messaging (IM), Reference, Skype for Business, Third-Party Skype for Business Products, Unified Communications, Voice over IP

I covered training in the past, for Lync Server, a few times.
The latest post is: 7 Questions from a Lync Training Session

But I haven’t posted about training for Skype for Business use. Until now.

I intend this post as a guide for building your own Skype training. Don’t follow the form exactly; you might gloss over something your staff or customers want to address further. Instead, think of the following as a skeleton – with some meat on it – from which to build your own training sessions.

Part 1: Major Points to Cover in Training

When starting a Skype training session, I first introduce myself, and state what we’re all here for. Then I use a lead-in to get the trainees talking (that way I’m not “talking at them” the whole time).

Depending on the audience involved, I’ve used these as lead-ins.

  • How many of you use “regular” Skype?
  • By now you’ve had a chance to play with Skype for Business. Any questions before we start?
  • What we’re covering today is a complete communications system. Skype for Business contains a set of communications tools…some you may know about, some you may not.

Then, I move into these major points.

  1. Skype4B Features: Instant Messaging, Presence, Enterprise Voice/VoIP, Conferencing, Persistent Chat
    • Common questions I get here: What is Presence? What’s VoIP? Does this change how we make calls? Is this like Shoretel/RingCentral/Citrix? Prepare short qualifying answers for these.
    • Example: “Presence is a status indicator. It tells everyone if you can talk right now, or if you’re in a call. You use it to tell others when you’re busy or not.”
  2. Meetings Capabilities: Video, Desktop Sharing, PowerPoint Sharing, Whiteboard
    • Most people aren’t interested in Polls, so I stopped including them.
  3. UX Differences in Skype for Business vs. other Tools
    • For some, the popup windows Skype creates when a phone call starts are distracting. You’ll want to make users aware of where each communication tool appears on their computer, and why it’s doing that. (A good way to justify these popup windows is to say that they give you the opportunity to expand the conversation further. Add video, or share a file.)

Part 2: Intro to Hardware Used

PolyCom CX600This part’s highly adaptable, for obvious reasons. The hardware one customer uses is different from what another customer uses.
We often install these:

  1. Polycom CX600 phones. PolyCom CX600 Quick User Guide (PDF)
  2. Polycom RealPresence Trio Hubs for conference rooms.  (Review Part 1) (Review Part 2)
  3. Headsets vary between Jabra and Plantronics models.

Normally I refer trainees to the User Guide after going through the hardware’s purpose and functions. Then I show how to use the hardware when performing Skype tasks.

Part 3: How to Perform Basic Tasks in Skype for Business

It’s at this point where I preemptively apologize. Some trainees already know the basics, and if I don’t warn them ahead of time, they can lose interest in the training when I cover those basics again. But I have to cover them–at least one person in every training session doesn’t know the basics!

So I spend a few minutes on how to:

  • Send an IM
  • Change your Presence status (make sure to point out the difference in Busy vs. Do Not Disturb)
  • Make a Call (via desktop client first, then via whatever phone or headset they have)
  • Schedule a Meeting
  • Join Meetings

Part 4: How to Use the Skype for Business iOS App

This is really popular! Every time I get to talking about the app, someone interrupts me to ask for it on their phones.
I cover what it does: Access Skype Contacts, make calls, check voicemail, join meetings
And what it doesn’t: Schedule meetings, call someone back who left a voicemail, see Contact Cards.

Skype for Business on iOS is Good, Not Perfect
Mobile Client Comparison Tables for Skype for Business – TechNet

Since it’s very difficult to showcase a phone screen in the middle of a group training session, I always say I’ll meet with individuals who want the app afterward. Invariably, someone wants me to run them through it at their desk.

Part 5: Q&A

Conference Room

Daunting!

There’s always questions. Normally I take questions throughout the training; people are always curious about something. However, some dedicated time at the end gives me room to answer questions in more detail, or to prompt users for post-training questions.

Common questions I receive at this stage:

  • What if we have two meetings scheduled at the same time?
    (In reference to booking a RealPresence Trio.) I told them that one meeting would get the time, but the other wouldn’t have the Trio available.
  • Can we park calls?
    Call park is a stalwart of old PBX days. It’s no longer necessary, since you can easily transfer calls within Skype. I tell users that Call Park does exist within Skype for Business, but it’s not enabled by default. We only enable it on request.
  • How do we mute everyone [in a meeting]?
    For some reason, people like making other people quiet down! I point out the Mute All option in a Skype Meeting (it’s under “Actions” in the People menu), and on devices like the RealPresence Trio Hub.

Training Helps Us Make Skype Usable for Everyone

I’ve done quite a few training sessions this summer. We’ve had lots of new Skype for Business (server and hybrid) installations complete. Once we’re close to finishing, we ask the customers if they’d like training, or reference documentation (we make 2-8 page “QuickCards” for these). Often customers opt for training, which we’re happy to provide.

During the last session I had (just last week) someone commented, “this (Skype for Business) is really tech-heavy.” I responded with, “That’s true, it is. There’s a lot of meat to the system. If you spend a little time with it, you’ll see how useful it becomes.”

She appeared to like the idea. I installed the iOS app on her phone, at her request, 30 minutes later. Taking Skype from the desktop, with all its power, and moving it onto a very familiar platform (her phone) made it more reachable for her.

Which is the whole point of our training. Skype for Business is a powerful and complex system, yes. Our primary training goal is to make it useful for each customer, in their own day-to-day work activities.

Do you train users on Skype for Business? What kinds of questions do you hear from users? Please comment or email them, even if they’re off-the-wall. Especially if they’re off-the-wall; I love those!

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Bias in Skype for Business Portrayals Hurt Customer Experiences

Skype for Business, Unified Communications, Voice over IP

While going through a backlog of Skype-related links from the past few weeks, I saw something come up over and over again…Bias.

Yes, I saw a lot of bias in how Skype for Business was portrayed.  Guess the product has been out for long enough that people’s opinions are swayed one way or the other.

This might come out as a bit of a rant.  But it does have value for would-be Skype for Business customers, and for the IT departments who support them.

Positive and Negative Examples of Skype for Business Bias

thumbsdown-639x478For my first example of bias, a Mr. Paolo Bocci published a LinkedIn Pulse piece:  Skype for Business, a Broken Promise

He came down hard on Skype4B, calling it “chaotic” and saying it’s difficult to adopt.  What concerned me wasn’t his conclusion – he’s welcome to that – it was the assertions without base or source.

One example is his assertion that Skype for Business “does not excel” in videoconferencing.

“Video conferencing between PC is not enough and attempts to enrich the system with expensive devices proved complex and unsuccessful.”

But Mr. Bocci did not provide any source or even evidence from his own experience to back up his claim.

Now, Lync Server did indeed have problems with video.  I remember that viscerally.  Skype for Business however, according to customer experiences, improved the flow of video in meetings.

And that’s with the exact same network bandwidth requirements as Lync Server.  See for yourself.
Skype for Business Server Media Bandwidth Requirements
Lync Server 2013 Media Bandwidth Requirements

If Skype for Business does have a limitation (and I’m sure we can think of a few), then it’s up to us to make Microsoft aware, and to work on solutions.

thumbsup-640x480


Conversely, Microsoft recently published a comparison between Skype for Business and some of its direct competitors.
Comparing Skype for Business versus Slack, Cisco, and Google Hangouts

Again, bias showing up.  This time on the positive side.

This report (basically a big table) says that Slack has no video calling.  The report was published on June 24.  Yet we did a post in March about Slack’s soon-to-arrive video call feature.  Microsoft is seriously stretching the truth.

(And the “Full Office integration” line is silly.  Google Hangouts works with Google Docs just fine.)

The Problem with Bias: Unjust Coloring of a Product

What’s the big deal here?
Why am I blogging about bias?
Doesn’t everyone know it’s out there?

Yes, most people do.  But here’s the reason – non-technical people may not recognize technical bias.

We’re running into this a lot lately. New customers are saying things like this:

  1. We heard Skype for Business was for the enterprise.  It’s too big for us.  [Ended up going with Skype for Business Online after some intense discussion.]
  2. Can’t it integrate with our CRM app?  Slack does that.  [Never moved forward on Skype4B]
  3. (Skype) works with our current phones, right?  We don’t have to get new ones?  [Their phones weren’t even VoIP capable!]

I’ve asked where people hear such things.  Haven’t received a concrete answer yet. It’s not their fault; they most likely read a blog post or saw a friend’s tweet, and adopted the position.

We’re human.  We do this all the time.  But it becomes frustrating for them when we explain the facts. It can (and sometimes does) taint their opinion of the product unjustly.

As IT professionals, it’s our job to build & support technology people need.  We all have favorites, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But it’s important to use facts in our arguments.  Bias, however creeping it is, can end up causing out customers unnecessary grief.

Which comes back to us too!

An Unbiased Take on Software Starts Customer Experiences Off Right (and Makes IT’s Job Easier)

Is Skype for Business perfect?  No.  Does that make it a failure?  Something we should avoid?  Not at all.  It’s a beefy software application, yes, and as such isn’t right for every business.

If we approach Skype4B with a pre-established bias – positive or negative – then we tarnish the customer’s experience of it, right from the start.

Here’s my as-unbiased-as-possible position on Skype for Business:

  • Skype for Business Server is a usable communications system for businesses of any size, provided they have or will build the infrastructure to run it.  If they do, it can provide great value to everyday office communication.
  • Skype for Business Online is a usable communications system for businesses of any size, though its as-yet-limited functionality makes it a better option for small businesses or startups.  Depending on Microsoft’s choices, it may remain as a viable option even as those businesses grow.  If it doesn’t, Skype for Business Server can take over.

What do you think?  Am I underestimating or overestimating technical bias’ impact on Skype for Business usage?  Please comment or email your thoughts.

Next week’s post will be late.  But you’ll want to check back – we’re talking about Skype for Business training.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Will This Take Office 365?

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

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

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

In the Meeting Too

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

What Does This Mean for Skype for Business Server?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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