Browsing the archives for the video conferencing tag.

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

Skype for Business

Skype for Business is (finally) coming to Mac.

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

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

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

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

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

Skype for Business Preview on Mac

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

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

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

But Wait! The Preview has Arrived!

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

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

I signing up for the following:

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

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

Hope to hear back very soon.

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

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

Initial criteria are as follows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Hardware Review: Polycom RealPresence Trio 8800 (Part 2)

Skype for Business

“It makes audio conferencing a visual experience.”

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

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

Trio 8800

The Trio 8800 Hub.

Audio/Video Quality: Awesome!

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

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

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

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

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

Setup: Couple Hurdles, Easy Afterward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease of Use: As Simple as Skype for Business

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

Trio 8800 Hub Screen in Icons Mode

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

Next, let’s talk about the hub itself.

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

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

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

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

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

Logitech Cam Privacy Screen

Behold, the privacy screen!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issues: Early-Version Snags

So far, we saw 3 snags with the device.

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

Verdict: Great Conferencing System with Lots of Usefulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

And don’t forget to join us next time!

 

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Hardware Review: PolyCom RealPresence Trio 8800 (Part 1)

Conferencing, Skype for Business, Third-Party Lync Products

We have a new device to review! It’s the RealPresence Trio 8800 from PolyCom.

I will do this in two parts. Today’s post will talk about the RealPresence Trio’s capabilities. Next post will cover our experience testing it in the office.

“RealPresence”? What’s That?

The RealPresence Trio is a conferencing system built for “amazing sound quality.” But it doesn’t just provide audio – you can add video, share content and link up devices like tablets.

The “Trio” part refers to its 3 products:

  1. A meeting console, or “smart hub.”
  2. A Logitech Webcam C390e. (Right now, this is the only camera with which RealPresence works.)
  3. And the Visual+ accessory unit. The Visual+ expands the RealPresence hub with content sharing & videoconferencing functionality.

RealPresence Trio from PolyCom

RealPresence works with Skype for Business and Lync Server 2013 at full capability. (RealPresence can work with a Lync 2010 server, but audio-only. Its video coding standard is too new for Lync 2010 to support.)

As you can see from the photo (credit to PolyCom), the smart hub looks a lot like the “Three-legged Spider” (my own name for conference room speakers). The hub’s panels are touch-sensitive – not only for the LCD screen, but on each speaker “leg”. For instance, touch the mute corner on any of them (visible in green above), and the speaker is muted.

The webcam can operate standalone, or connected to a TV/monitor. We’ll test it using the Panasonic LCD TV in our conference room.

The Visual+ facilitates content sharing – presentations, spreadsheets, video.

RealPresence Trio 880 FAQ (PDF)

What’s so Special?

Why should a business consider using the RealPresence though? They do have audio/video conferencing options.

Well, first off, the RealPresence Trio is very new. Which means latest-and-greatest tech.

1080p video at 30fps. Good clear video from the Logitech.

Built-in Power over Ethernet (PoE). Fewer cords is always helpful!

Exchange Calendar integration. The other day, a customer reported a little difficulty with their conference room. They had Skype for Business running in the conference room (but not on a RealPresence Trio device). Audio worked all right, and they could get video. But actually joining Skype Meetings proved problematic.

This is in fact one of the reasons we started looking at the RealPresence product. Its calendar integration for meeting joins should prove much simpler than the older device this customer used.

Audio. The big one. The RealPresence Trio shows some serious devotion to audio quality.

  • USB and Bluetooth connectivity for audio. You can use it as a conferencing device, or a speakerphone. Not just with Skype for Business either.
  • NoiseBlock – an audio technology “which identifies non-speech noise and mutes all microphones automatically.”
  • From the FAQ: “RealPresence Trio also uses its own echo cancellation capabilities, regardless of its operating mode. Trio is recognized as a USB echo cancelling speakerphone.”

I’ll try as many tests of this as I can. But I admit a slight bias here – we’ve used PolyCom phones and conferencing devices for some years now. In terms of echo and noise, they generally work well.

I’ll know more after the testing. But right now, I’d say the RealPresence Trio is a good chance if you:

  • Have workers out in the field, and need to hear from them regularly.
  • Operate out of multiple offices.
  • Have teams spread out geographically, who need to collaborate often.
  • Are moving to Skype for Business Server and want an audio conferencing solution that ‘just works’ with it.

Elements to Test

These are the elements I plan to test on the RealPresence.

  1. Video quality. As high as the Panasonic TV will go.
  2. Audio quality. I’m honestly not sure how to test this, but one of our designers works with audio-visual, so I’ll ask him for input.
  3. Content sharing stream. I’ve done a lot of desktop/app/presentation sharing through Skype for Business. Bandwidth and device quality influence how smooth & clear the stream is. We have plenty of bandwidth in the office…let’s see how the device measures up.
  4. Ease of setup. I’m asking the rest of our Skype for Business team for their input too.
  5. Ease of use for meetings. How long does it take to set up a meeting using RealPresence? Is the meeting join really one-step?
  6. Integration with Skype for Business and Exchange. How complicated is this part to set up? Do we need to do anything not documented?
  7. Will it BLEND? (No, not really.)

Anything you’d like us to test on the PolyCom RealPresence? If so, please comment or email the idea.

If you’re not already subscribed, don’t forget to sign up on the right! Otherwise you might miss the next post, detailing our test results. Nobody wants to miss that!

 

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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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Office 365 E5 Debuts – With New Skype for Business Online Services

Skype for Business

Yesterday, on December 1, Microsoft debuted the new Office 365 Enterprise E5 Plan.office365e5

I you’ve seen any of the prior announcements, you saw that E5 replaces E4 (though E4 is still available until June).

Why am I talking about this here? Simple. The new E5 plan includes not only Skype for Business, but some of Microsoft’s new hosted services: Cloud PBX, PSTN Conferencing and Meeting Broadcast.

These have existed in beta for a while now. And hotly anticipated—I mentioned them back in May! E5 is their big debut. Starting today, we’re all about to put them through their paces.

First, let’s review the new Skype for Business services in E5. Get a solid idea on what to expect.

The Skype for Business Services Added in E5

  • e5servicesCloud PBX: Cloud-based call management. Acts as a replacement for on-premise PBX systems. No need to manage a dedicated Enterprise Voice server.
  • PSTN Conferencing: Meeting attendees can dial in from almost any device. It even lets organizers dial out and pull attendees in – very handy if someone’s having connection issues. Or forgot the meeting was at 11!
  • Meeting Broadcast: Create virtual meetings you can broadcast online for up to 10,000 attendees. (Really not sure why you’d want 10,000 people in 1 meeting, but hey…)
  • PSTN Calling: Lets you provision standard phone numbers for making & receiving traditional phone calls. No calling plan with AT&T or Verizon required.

Let’s clarify something here. The PSTN Calling service is listed as an “add-on” on the E5 features page. It’s NOT built into the Cloud PBX by default. You’ll have to pay an extra $12/month per user ($24/month if you want international calling). That said, if you want to use E5, I’d say PSTN Calling is a must-have.

e5pstncalling1 e5pstncalling2
Now, as with all new services, there’s some operational information we need before making a decision. How much E5 costs, can we try them out, etc.

What You Need to Know About E5

E5 licensing is more expensive than E3 and E4 (like you’d expect). It goes for $35/month per user, or $420 a year. Really not bad, with all the features you get.

Rollout is not complete internationally! The PSTN Calling service is only available in the U.S. right now. According to a Windows IT Pro post from Tony Redmond, PSTN Conferencing depends on local telecom deals, so it’s not available in some countries (like Ireland) just yet.

A free trial is available. Remember, you have a 30-day free trial option on this (and any other) plan. You can sign up for it right on the
Office 365 E5 Signup page.

The timing works nicely – it’s the last month of the year, and Microsoft is finishing up the E5 services. Try it out for December, make a decision to start off with E5 in January 2016.

The Side Effect: Third-Party Skype4B Support Becomes Harder

One caution I did want to point out. If these new Skype for Business Online services work out, it means more movement to the cloud, and away from on-prem.

For some businesses it means an easier adoption of Skype for Business. That’s great–an excellent benefit for those businesses. Plus it’ll save on telecom bills.

For others, it means a loss of control over operations – control they may have to keep in-house due to legal compliance. That’s a troublesome snag and may hurt adoption.

But the more serious issue is: Where does my support come from?

Expanding the Skype for Business Online service transfers the impetus of support back to Microsoft. Away from third-party service providers. Of course, many service providers do support Office 365 installations, and do a good job of it. But the more Microsoft moves systems back under their own roof, the harder it will be to provide high-quality support for them.

This does shape your support experience. Which is why I bring it up now. Make sure to consider where your support will come from, before you sign up for Office 365 E5.

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Now, a positive note on which to end! These new capabilities fulfill the promise Microsoft made months ago – making Office 365 into a complete phone system. On top of all the Office apps we use every day.

Let’s see how well they work!

Have you tried any of the new Skype for Business Online features while in beta? What was your experience? Please comment or email.

Also, if you’re planning to use E5, let me know how well it works for you. I’ll do a follow-up post later this month if I hear back from enough people.

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Call for Renaming: Let’s Refer to Consumer-Grade Skype as SkypeC

Skype for Business

If you’ve read almost anything about Skype for Business, you’ve run into a moment of confusion.

You read a certain paragraph, and suddenly think, “Wait, was he referring to Skype for Business, or regular Skype?”

Despite the “for Business,” many blog posts, news articles & so on are referring to the new Skype for Business as just “Skype”. This breeds an immediate and (in my mind) serious confusion.

That’s why I’m using today’s post to call for a new naming convention for consumer-grade Skype.

SkypeC for Consumer

From now on, let’s differentiate between the two products like this.

1. Skype (Consumer Version) is henceforth referred to as “SkypeC“.

Simple and clear. SkypeC = “Skype Consumer”. That’s too many syllables for a quick reference though, so abbreviating it down to “SkypeC” keeps it fast.

Amazingly, this does already exist as a Twitter hashtag – #SkypeC. However, it hasn’t been in regular use for a couple years now. It’s time to resume use. I’ll do so when posting to Twitter from now on. You are welcome to do the same, of course!

2. Skype for Business, if abbreviated, is referred to as “Skype4B“.

This is already used as a Twitter hashtag: Hashtag #Skype4B
I’ve used the abbreviation myself for weeks now. You can even refer to this blog as “The Skype4B Insider”.

Why would we need this though? Why not just stick with “Skype”? As I’ll clarify below, confusion is brewing…there’s a need for clarity.

The Need for Better Naming Convention

Skype. Skype for Business. Similar names, similar features, similar interfaces.

While one is intended for consumer & one for business, that line has blurred for years. How many of us used consumer-grade Skype in the office at one point or another? Thousands have over the past 5 years. I sure did.

Now Skype for Business presents a clearly business-focused product. Will everyone switch? No. So we’ll still have both consumer Skype (SkypeC) and Skype for Business in use around offices. Simultaneously.

This presents not only an adoption roadblock, but a more disruptive concern.

The Concern: Version Confusion

Let’s say you’re in the office one day, and a colleague requests a Skype call. You have Skype for Business, but they don’t. Maybe that department is slow on upgrades, or this person is just comfortable with SkypeC.

Now, these two should communicate just fine, if set up properly. IMs, calls, and even video should work.

But they don’t use the same codecs. They have different security requirements. They have different feature sets. If a Skype for Business user tries to add a whiteboard or invite more people into an Online Meeting, well, you’re in trouble.

The GetApp Lab Blog has a good write-up on differences between Skype and Skype for Business: Skype vs Skype for Business: What’s the Difference? – GetApp Lab

Examples of SkypeC/Skype4B Confusion

While the SkypeC/Skype for Business confusion has gone on for most of 2015, what really spurred me on this idea was the recent announcement of Office 2016.

One of Office 2016’s new features is having Skype for Business bundled in. All the flagship apps – Word, Excel, PowerPoint – will access Skype for Business natively. Reading articles about this though, you’d almost swear they don’t mean Skype for Business. They mean consumer-grade Skype.

Why? Because they don’t clarify the version.

Here’s two examples of said confusion:
Five reasons Microsoft Office 2016 is better than Google Docs, and three reasons it isn’t – CNET
“Microsoft also added integrations with its search engine Bing and messaging and video-calling app Skype.”
At a glance you’d think this means consumer-grade Skype, not Skype for Business. But it doesn’t.

Microsoft Office 2016 Adds Built-In Skype, Collaboration Tools – BloombergBusiness
“Microsoft Corp.’s new Office software will incorporate Internet-connected features such as Skype and the Cortana digital assistant in both its cloud and packaged versions…”
Again, just labeling it as ‘Skype’ and not clarifying.

I’m not criticizing the authors of these pieces. They’re doing what they need to, with the tools they have. I’m only referencing the articles as evidence of the need for clarity.

What Do You Think? Start Calling Consumer Skype “SkypeC”?

I didn’t create the #Skype4B Twitter hashtag. It came into being by consensus as an easy-to-understand abbreviation. That’s why I like using it.

I think “SkypeC” works as another easy-to-understand abbreviation. With 1 letter we instantly know which version we’re talking about. Both in the written word and when speaking.

Maybe in the future, SkypeC and Skype4B will merge to a greater degree. Maybe we won’t need to differentiate between versions then. For now though, I think differentiating adds needed clarity.

Do you think SkypeC is useful? Is it necessary or unnecessary? Please comment or email your thoughts.  I really want to hear some feedback on this one!

 

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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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