Browsing the archives for the Unified Communications tag.

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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Presence is Dead? I Think Not!

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

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

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

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

Well, what is Spark then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret to Loving Presence: Relating It to Workday Stresses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Status Green. I am Available."

“Status Green. I am Available.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Glad to help!

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

December Poll Results: More Stability, Better Performance Needed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speculations on Skype for Business in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to my final topic.

What to Expect from The Skype4B Insider Blog in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Won’t Skype for Business Screen Sharing Work Over 4G?

Skype for Business, Voice over IP

Welcome to 2016 at the Skype4B Insider! I’ll start off the year with responding to reader questions. (Seems reasonable, since you as readers are the most important part of the blog!)

Over the holidays I received not one, but two readers asking a question about 4G. They went (roughly) like this:

#1 – “When I try to make a call over 4G, the audio works. But I can’t share my screen.”
#2 – “When I try to do a video session on my phone in a meeting, it (Skype for Business) won’t let me. I’m on 4G.”

My mind went right to the same thing in both cases – Network Bandwidth.Cell Tower

A Question of Bandwidth

According to Wikipedia, the 4G standard’s peak speed is 100Mbit/s for “high mobility communication” (e.g. from trains and cars), and 1Gbit/s for “low mobility communication” (people standing or walking).

Of course, mobile providers control 4G with a heavy hand. “The Fastest Speeds! Unlimited Data! …Oh wait, you thought we really meant ‘unlimited’? That’s cute.”

According to Skype for Business’ Network Bandwidth Requirements page, the required bandwidth for video sessions varies depending on codec used. But it can require up to 4Mbps, just for the video!

Most of us wouldn’t use that much; audio calls work fine on only 100-200Kbps. But when you’re adding a few people into an Online Meeting, and someone activates screen sharing, your bandwidth requirement could shoot up to a level where 4G cannot cope. Whether from signal strength, or from the provider throttling it.

Our experience with 3G/4G is similar. When using Wi-Fi or Ethernet, full capacity is easily managed (on a Standard Edition with default bandwidth configuration). When using 3G or 4G, sharing capabilities are limited or unavailable, and video is choppy or fails.

If you control the 3G/4G pipe, then of course you can configure both the pipe and Skype for Business to accommodate higher bandwidth. Here’s a bandwidth calculator for Skype for Business, if you need help.

Sometimes 4G Just Doesn’t Behave

All that said, this isn’t the first time a 4G network refused to cooperate with Lync/Skype for Business.  In fact I documented the issue back in January 2014:
Issues With Lync 2013 – Known and Unknown (But Documented)

“Sharing and video call invitations fail on some mobile 4G networks”
Version: Lync 2013 Windows Store App, June 2013 Update
Explanation: On some mobile 4G networks, you may not be able to send or receive video in meetings and video calls or to see shared content in meetings. When you’re in a call or meeting, a notification will be displayed that video or sharing is available, but clicking Accept will result in a failure because the mobile network connection is temporarily lost.
Workaround: No workaround is available at this time.

Additional Reference: Difference between Lync Mobility Using 3G/4G and Wifi – TechNet Support

I checked again for a workaround (it has been a while since MS documented the issue), but found nothing. Overall, Skype for Business’ bandwidth management is much better than Lync Server 2013. But it’s still a powerful system with heavy requirements.

When Using 4G, Some Skype4B Options May Not Cooperate. Sorry!

Since this is an issue with 4G providers, we don’t have a simple solution. One software patch won’t fix bandwidth allocation for multiple mobile providers worldwide. In addition, since 4G is almost always limited by providers, Skype4B’s video/sharing requirements may exceed those limits by default.

It’s frustrating, I know. But using Skype for Business in an office environment, where you have configurable Wi-Fi or Ethernet, often trumps ISPs’ 4G.

Do you regularly use Skype for Business on mobile? How is your bandwidth configured in light of this? Please comment or email. I’d love to hear the different ways people have configured their Skype for Business Servers.

If you’re just joining us, welcome! Please share how you got here and what you’d like to see. Don’t forget to subscribe (signup box is at top right).

Next week I’ll go through the December poll results, and 2016 plans for the blog. Nobody wants to miss that!

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Skype for Business vs. WhatsApp

Skype for Business

Continuing our “Skype for Business VS.” idea, we’re doing a comparison to WhatsApp!

The Basics: Feature Sets

Skype for Business 2015
WhatsApp
Instant Messaging Chats
Voice Calls Voice Calls
Video Calls Video Chats
Conferences/Online Meetings N/A
Presence Status Status Indicator
Persistent Chat Group Chats
Runs On-Site (Server)
or SaaS option (Office 365)
Mobile App,
Web Service Option

 

whatsappicon(Please note: For today’s post, I’m running WhatsApp on my iPhone. If you use a different phone, you should see identical, if not very similar, WhatsApp screens.)

WhatsApp is a messaging app made for iPhones, Android Phones, Blackberries, Windows Phones, and Nokia Phones. It’s owned by Facebook now, but was started separately by some former Yahoo employees.

Like [Google Hangouts last time], Skype for Business and WhatsApp have similar feature sets. The fundamental difference between them is that WhatsApp is entirely mobile-based. Skype for Business focuses on the desktop first, desk phones after, then mobile clients.

The Similarities: Functions, Ease of Use

I find WhatsApp closer to Skype for Business, in terms of function, than Google Hangouts.
Its Chats are very similar to Skype4B’s Instant Messages. You can send images and video within the conversations. You can call others in the system.

 

whatsapp3

 

Everything is accessible from one central contact-based menu. I found instructions throughout the client, written & styled to look like the iPhone’s own commands. The WhatsApp team kept ease of use in mind while designing, that’s for sure.

All that said, there are notable differences between the two communication systems.

The Differences: Privacy, Security, Mobile vs. All

First off – WhatsApp is mobile-based. There is no desktop client. Skype for Business has mobile capabilities, but it’s desktop-based.

While WhatsApp covers devices Skype4B doesn’t (people still use the Blackberry?), Skype4B has more capabilities due to its server setup.

Conversation History. WhatsApp chats are saved to your phone. It’s possible to email chats in order to save them externally: How do I save my chat history? – WhatsApp FAQ

The WhatsApp app does have a backup option. It allows you to backup chats and videos (optional) to iCloud on the iPhone. This is not enabled by default; you must do so in Settings.

So there is a form of Conversation History within WhatsApp. However, it’s not automatic, or as comprehensive as Skype for Business’ Conversation History function.

Privacy. WhatsApp does have a pretty good privacy policy. I like that they use simple “human” language for it too. An example:

“WhatsApp does not collect names, emails, addresses or other contact information from its users’ mobile address book or contact lists other than mobile phone numbers—the WhatsApp mobile application will associate whatever name the WhatsApp user has assigned to the mobile telephone number in his/her mobile address book or contact list…”

whatsapp1

 

Privacy controls are available in WhatsApp Settings. It’s not at the same level as Skype4B though (server edition at least). With Skype4B you have complete control of your data’s storage & logs. With WhatsApp, you do not.

Security. WhatsApp does not use end-to-end encryption. For corporate use where data security is a must, this makes WhatsApp a no-go. In contrast, Skype for Business does employ encryption, precisely to protect your data. (The Skype for Business team confirmed this in a Reddit thread.)

Finally, there is no 911 access on WhatsApp. I don’t think this is a deal-breaker, since you’re using a phone, which by definition has 911 access. Just pointing it out.

Final Words: WhatsApp OK for Personal, Not Great for Business (But Skype4B Is!)

The WhatsApp team deserves credit for their UI. They made a messaging app that’s clean, simple to use, and clearly popular.

I think WhatsApp makes a good casual communication tool, for personal use. However, it’s missing the security & privacy requirements needed to work in a business environment. For that, you’ll need Skype for Business.

Have you ever used WhatsApp in a business context? If so, what was your experience like? Please comment or email. Also, if you have another communications tool you’d like me to compare to Skype for Business, please send that over too!

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Skype for Business vs. Google Hangouts

Skype for Business

Skype for Business isn’t the only voice/video option out there. But how does it stack up compared to others?

A reader emailed me the other day, asking about Google Hangouts. They were curious if there was a business case to make for using Hangouts over Skype for Business.

Good question! I made note of it for later. Today qualifies as ‘later’, so let’s do a little head-to-head.

Note: This post is longer than most; I didn’t want to go into exhaustive detail, but I did want a thorough comparison. It’s worth the read, trust me!

The Basics: Feature Sets

Google Hangouts Opening Screen

Skype for Business 2015 Google Hangouts
Instant Messaging Instant Messaging
Voice Calls Voice Calls
Video Calls Video Calls
Conferences/Online Meetings Conferencing
Presence Status Presence Indicator
Persistent Chat Group Conversations
Runs On-Site (Server)
or SaaS option (Office 365)
Runs as Web service
and Mobile Apps

 

From this match-up, the two look almost identical in terms of feature set. Even their branding is similar:

  • Google Hangouts bills itself as “Messaging, Voice and Video Calls.”
  • Skype for Business bills itself as “Secure Unified Communications.”

I do want to point out one notable difference right away. Google Hangouts reflects more of a consumer-friendly branding approach, while Skype for Business focuses just on business use. This becomes more important as we go along.

The Similarities: Features, Goals, Quality

Features. Obviously, these two systems keep up-to-date on their features. One thing I particularly liked was the fact that Hangouts does sync its chat logs between devices. Lync Server 2013 didn’t have this feature–but Skype for Business does now.

Goals. Hangouts and Skype for Business essentially accomplish the same goal: enabling conversations between everyone, anywhere they are.

Voice Quality. I made a couple calls from the Hangouts Web Service (on a Lenovo Ultrabook) to colleagues. Then I made the same calls to the same people on Skype for Business. My stock audio-receptor devices (commonly called “ears”) detected no difference in voice quality. Both times people sounded as clear as your typical phone call.

Video Quality. Likewise, I tested Video Calls through Hangouts and Skype4B. I can see why people like Hangouts for video calls – you can’t get much simpler than clicking “Video Call” and having the call start up.

Start a Hangouts Video Call

Video quality appears just as good as my usual Skype4B video calls. Curiously, one person’s voice actually sounded better while video was enabled! Perhaps that meant more bandwidth allocated automatically.

The Differences: Price, Privacy, Presence

Price. Hangouts is free, but it has limits. Video calls are limited to 10 people. (I don’t know why you’d want to have more than 10 people talking at once, but hey, if you need to!)

Skype for Business is, of course, not free. You’re paying for the software and the hosting, either on-site or Office 365. In return you get every feature you want, with limits you set. Classic Free vs. Paid tradeoff.

User Interface. Google Hangouts is very visual, lots of emoji, avatars, chat bubbles…it’s “fun”. Again, consumer branding. Skype for Business is less “fun”, but it’s clean and works in a business context.

No big deal here. Your preference will dictate which interface type you like more.

Privacy. With Hangouts, all conversation logs are stored on Google’s servers. This, quite frankly, is a huge concern to me. It means Google has access to every conversation, ever.  And it doesn’t use end-to-end encryption.

We’re VERY privacy-conscious here at PlanetMagpie. We’re even leery of customers using Skype for Business 2015 Online, Microsoft’s Office 365 service. For the same reason.

Of course, with Skype for Business Server 2015, your conversation history is stored on the on-site server. Much better for privacy.

Presence. Skype for Business beats Google Hangouts here, in my opinion. Hangouts’ presence indicators are good for seeing who’s available/not available at a glance. Particularly on Android devices.

Hangouts uses a green circle to identify Available contacts (example on right). Very much like Skype for Business does. Custom status messages are available too.

However, you don’t have options for other status types, such as Away or Busy. This is where Skype for Business’ Presence functionality pulls ahead. It has more options: Available, Busy, Do Not Disturb, Away, In a Call, etc. We’ve also covered creating custom Presence status options in the past.

 

Apps. The Hangouts Extension only works in Chrome. I think that’s a “feature not a bug” from Google, but I prefer using Firefox. I can still use the Web-based Hangouts platform, of course. Minor difference.

In terms of app quality, I’d have to give an edge to Google Hangouts. Their iPhone app is clean and fast. I didn’t try out the Android app, but according to Twitter it’s just as good, if not better.

========

Final Words: Very Close, Use What Works Best For You

Hangouts is a great quick-and-easy choice for video calls and group chats. I’d say it’s a viable choice for small outfits like startups, local nonprofits or communities. Free, lets you communicate the way you want, and doesn’t get in your way.

In larger business environments however, I’d stick with Skype for Business. It’s better suited for the privacy requirements and enterprise voice/video capability needs.

I know some businesses do use Google Hangouts and like it. That’s great–it does work with Google Apps for Business, so you’ve got plenty of tools at your fingertips. It all comes down to which interface you like & where your privacy settings are.

If you have a Google account, you can access Google Hangouts at: https://hangouts.google.com/

Which do you prefer using – Google Hangouts or Skype for Business? Are there situations where you prefer one over the other? Please comment or email me what you think.

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