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Microsoft To Roll Out Skype for Business Products in April

Microsoft disclosed its Skype for Business roadmap plans today, with three new products expected to start arriving next month.

The three products set for possible release include Skype for Business Server, Skype for Business client and a Skype for Business service that will be offered via Office 365 subscriptions. Skype for Business is the new name applied to Microsoft's Lync unified communications product line, supporting presence, instant messaging, videoconferencing and voice-over-IP (VoIP) capabilities. Microsoft announced the name change back in November.

Microsoft also owns the consumer Skype service network, enabling voice, video and IM communications over the Internet, which was purchased back in 2011. The new Skype for Business product line coming in April promises interconnectivity between these business and consumer Skype solutions. A spokesperson for Microsoft explained that Skype for Business users will be able to "invite anyone, including Skype consumer client users, to join a Skype for Business meeting using a browser."

Microsoft's announcement today implied a broad product rollout of Skype for business products in April. However, the fine print also indicated that not all of those products will be at the "general availability" product release stage with regard to all of the Skype for Business capabilities. Many of the preview releases are timed for "this summer," and that implies that the products won't be "generally available" (or ready for production use) in April.

Enterprise Voice and Data
For instance, capabilities such as "enterprise voice," Microsoft's term for VoIP communications, as well as audio conferencing, plus connections to the public switched telephone network (PSTN), will roll out at the "technical preview" stage sometime "this summer" in the U.S. market. Those capabilities will be rolled out globally at some other, unspecified time, according to the announcement. Here is how Microsoft described its plan:

We will offer enterprise voice and audio conferencing in Office 365, starting with a technical preview in the U.S. this summer, as well as enterprise-grade PSTN connectivity, beginning in the U.S. later this year, followed by a global roll out. This means Office 365 can be used for all your conversations—written, audio and video.

Microsoft also announced that it is extending its ExpressRoute high-bandwidth connection service to Skype for Business for voice and data. Partners that will offer ExpressRoute connections for Skype for Business as part of Office 365 subscriptions will include "AT&T, BT, Colt, Equinix, Level 3 Communications, Orange Business Services, TATA Communications, Telstra, Verizon and Vodafone," according to Microsoft's announcement. Organizations using the server version of the product will be able to leverage those service providers "when you need it," the announcement added. This announcement coincides with Microsoft's extension of the ExpressRoute service to Office 365 services generally, on top of existing support for Azure services, as announced by Microsoft this week.

It's unclear from Microsoft's announcement whether ExpressRoute will be a requirement for using Skype for Business to access enterprise voice and data. ExpressRoute supports private connections, bypassing the public Internet, ranging from 10Mbps to 1Gbps bandwidth. Microsoft's enterprise voice capability has been an evolving feature that has required involvement with telco partners to establish voice connections over the Internet. In previous descriptions, Microsoft had said that organizations would need to set up SIP trunking service arrangements with its telecom partners to enable VoIP connections to the PSTN, and that aspect may now be wrapped up as part of ExpressRoute connection services.

The free trial of enterprise voice capabilities in Skype for Business will not require an ExpressRoute subscription, per the spokesperson. She added that Skype for Business enterprise voice will support E911 services, which is an alternative emergency calling system.

Office 365 Skype for Business
Organizations using Microsoft's current Lync Online service as part of Office 365 subscriptions will be automatically switched over to the new Skype for Business service as Microsoft rolls it out. The switch will be completed for all customers by "the end of May," according to a Microsoft FAQ page. Not all Skype for Business components will be complete for Office 365 subscribers in May, though. Microsoft's announcement today suggested that the voice portion will lag, with a preview first appearing sometime this summer:

Join us on this journey to the future by trying the new Skype for Business client, signing up to be part of the Skype for Business Cloud Voice Preview in the U.S. this summer, and connecting with a Microsoft partner to plan your deployment of Skype for Business.

Skype for Business Server 2015
The server version of the product will be available in May. A Microsoft spokesperson stated that "the Skype for Business Server 2015 will be available for download on May 1, 2015, and will be added to the pricelist at the same time."

Few details were provided about the forthcoming Skype for Business Server in Microsoft's announcement. Back in November, Microsoft had promised that it would be possible to establish Skype for Business video connections without requiring the use of a Microsoft account. Microsoft added Lync-to-Skype consumer video connection capabilities in December, but those connections still required Skype users to have a Microsoft account back then.

However, Skype for Business will enable multiparty video connections. It will support "up to 250" connections, according to the Microsoft spokesperson.

Also in November, Microsoft had said that the next server product would not require a hardware upgrade -- at least for Lync Server 2013 users. Lync Server 2010 has different hardware requirements from Lync Server 2013, so there may be a difference for users of the older server solution. Here's how it was described by the Microsoft spokesperson:

Because we support the same hardware profile, existing Lync Server 2013 customers can continue to use the same hardware. Of course, as these customers expand their deployments to cover more users and functions, they may require additional hardware.

It's expected that server capabilities will lag Office 365 capabilities to some degree. If so, the details weren't offered.

Skype for Business Client
The new Skype for Business client is currently available as a "technical preview." The client can be downloaded at Microsoft's TechNet Evaluation Center page for U.S. testers, and those outside the United States can get it here, according to Microsoft's FAQ (although the latter link didn't seem to be working at press time). Microsoft also announced this week that its recently released preview of the Office 2016 productivity suite includes the Skype for Business client, which has been built into the Office 2016 user interface.

By "Skype for Business client," Microsoft likely just means the desktop version. A Microsoft Yammer "YamJam" Q&A session suggested today that the client apps for mobile devices would arrive later.

"We have no announcements on mobile clients but updated versions for those clients should be rolling out before the end of the year," explained Paul Cannon, a senior product marketing manager at Microsoft, in the YamJam session.

Apparently, the older mobile clients can be used if the mobile Skype for Business clients aren't available in April. Here's how the Microsoft spokesperson explained the matter.

"Skype for Business mobile applications will be available on WP [Windows Phone], iOS and Android in the coming months. In the meantime, customers can continue to use the Lync mobile clients with Skype for Business."

The Skype for Business client preview will only work for organizations that already have the Lync 2013 client installed as it updates that installation, according to Microsoft's FAQ. Testers need to either have Lync Server 2013 installed on premises or they need to be current Office 2013 ProPlus users (Office ProPlus is the version of the Microsoft Office suite that's offered through Office 365 subscriptions).

The new Skype for Business client preview will work with Lync Server 2010 installations. However, Microsoft's FAQ ambiguously explained that "only features supported by Lync Server 2010 will be supported in this case."

Partner Efforts
Microsoft has many hardware and software Lync partners that appear to be stepping up to the Skype for Business release. Microsoft announced today that Polycom will be the first vendor to "support PSTN calling in Office 365" via its "VVX business media phones." Polycom is also going to support Skype for Business with its Polycom RoundTable 100 device, which is designed to be a simple conferencing device for use by small-to-midsize businesses. The RoundTable 100 will be priced around $1,000 and is being designed to work with "no IT assistance." Existing Polycom CX5100, CX5500 and CX8000 products will become part of the RoundTable product line.

Microsoft's Lync Room System program for its hardware partners is now becoming the "Skype Room System" program. These products are dedicated videoconferencing screen systems that enable online meetings to be conducted with white-boarding capabilities. Microsoft's partners Crestron, Polycom and Smart are all planning to offer new Skype Room Systems products, which will be available this summer when Windows 10 gets released. Microsoft's announcement today promised that "all Lync Room Systems devices will also be upgradable to Skype Room Systems and the Skype for Business experience."

Microsoft also mentioned today that its Microsoft Surface Hub product will have Skype for Business capabilities. The Microsoft Surface Hub is a Windows 10-based ultra-high-definition display with built-in sensors and cameras, as well as an 84-inch screen that can be marked up via touch interface or stylus. This Microsoft-produced product is still under development, but it would seem to be a competitive offering to the Skype Room System products that will be offered by Microsoft's partners.

Microsoft Surface Hub and Link Room System devices are two different product offerings, according to the Microsoft spokesperson.

"LRS [Link Room System] focuses specifically on delivering a great Skype Meetings experience, while Surface Hub is a broader collaboration device," the spokesperson explained. "It [Surface Hub] provides of course a great Skype Meeting experience, while providing additional experiences relying on Office, One Note, and Universal Apps to provide a great collaborative experience."

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