What you need to know about Microsoft Skype for Business

What you need to know about Microsoft Skype for Business
Credit: Corbis

Microsoft's concurrent shifts from Lync to Skype and from on-premises servers to the cloud are confusing many enterprises

First there was Skype, a well-liked app for instant messaging, video chat, and voice calls. Then Microsoft bought the company in 2011, continuing to offer it as a consumer product along with Lync as a business application. But last year Microsoft announced it would drop Lync in favor of Skype for Business, which would combine features of both Lync and Skype.

Today, many people are confused with what is actually available and how it works. After all, there are two Skype services (the free consumer version and the paid-for online or on-premises version). There are two client types available as well.

Let’s break them down:

  • Skype for Business Server 2015: This on-premises server provides IM, presence, peer-to-peer VoIP and video, conferencing, enterprise voice, and telephone-system (PSTN) connectivity.
  • Skype for Business Online: This service in Microsoft Cloud or Office 365 provides IM, presence, peer-to-peer VoIP and video, and conferencing. It does not provide enterprise voice or PSTN connectivity, but Microsoft says these features are in development.
  • Skype for Business: This client replaces the Lync client as part of the Office suite. It works with Skype for Business Server or Skype for Business Online. Clients are available for Windows and Windows Phone; clients for OS X, iOS, and Android are planned, but in the meantime you can use the current Lync clients on these platforms with Skype for Business as long as you enable client access in your global policy.
  • Skype: This client is available for consumer download, providing free service for personal use. Its features are similar to those of Skype for Business but usually are more limited in scope; for example, consumer Skype supports 25 people on a conference call versus 250 in Skype for Business. There are Skype clients for Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and Fire OS; they do not work with the Skype for Business servers.

Because Skype for Business Online doesn't support enterprise voice and PSTN features, IT organizations moving their Exchange and SharePoint deployments to the cloud must continue to use a third-party telephony platform or the on-premises Skype for Business Server.

For now, Skype for Business Server offers several key advantages  over its cloud version:

  • Skype Meeting Broadcast: This feature allows as many as 10,000 people in a meeting broadcast, such as for webinars.
  • PSTN Conferencing: This feature lets people dial into a call from a landline or mobile phone if they don’t want (or cannot) join in through their PC, mobile device, or browser.
  • Cloud PBX with PSTN Calling: This feature lets people make traditional phone calls through their Skype for Business client without having a traditional on-premises PBX. You’re given blocks of numbers to choose from based on your region, and you can assign these numbers to your users. (Microsoft plans to eventually offer a configuration option where you can use existing on-premises phone lines.)

The good news is that all three of these on-premises-only features are now available for testing in preview editions of Skype for Business Online. Microsoft says they should be available in the production version of Skype for Business Online by year's end.

You might criticize Microsoft for being late on delivering these core enterprise communications features in Skype for Business Online. But I'd prefer it do them right rather than rush the work. Initial reviews from IT folks in the field on the beta features praise the quality of service, with only minor complaints that the technical preview is missing a few important features (like voicemail) that will no doubt be coming in the production version.

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