Category: Microsoft Teams

Still Here!

Hello everyone! Chris here, with a quick we’re-not-dead post. I don’t need to explain just how crazy these past few months have been. We experienced a surge in customers needing help setting up remote work systems (and securing them!). We’re still embroiled in the effort, which is why this blog went quiet.

I hope to resume regular posting by the end of summer. In the meantime, I hope everyone is doing as well as possible, and that all our businesses will bounce back.

If you’d like to share any frustrations you’ve had with Skype4B or Teams in the past few months, please comment below.

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmail

Device Review: Poly EagleEye Cube USB Camera

Time for a new hardware review! This time we have an impressive little device – a new 4K USB camera from Poly (formerly Polycom/Plantronics).

Ben at Poly came out to demo some new hardware for us. He showed us two of Poly’s newer systems: the Studio X30 and Studio X50.

I’ll do a separate post on those. This one’s focused on another hardware item we saw in the same demo. Ben brought along a new camera: the EagleEye Cube USB camera.

I asked Ben if he’d lend me an EagleEye for review. He agreed, handing over his demo unit.

This is the EagleEye description from its overview & specs page:

The advanced HD camera with intelligent group framing, 5x zoom and legendary audio performance that turns passive meetings in small spaces into powerful experiences. This camera is the ideal visual complement to Poly G7500, Polycom Trio and Group Series conferencing systems.

  • HD camera with 4K sensor for better up-close views with 5x zoom
  • Automatic group framing or speaker tracking with a 120-degree field of view so people can sit where they want
  • Simple single-cable connection to Polycom video solutions
  • Two built-in microphones for crystal-clear pickup
  • Premium optics and accurate color reproduction deliver true-to-life visuals
  • Flexible, easy installation and centralized management make this camera a breeze for IT

Let’s see how well this bears out!

Initial Impressions – Boxy, Big Aperture, Built-In Balancing Stand

Sorry, no breathless unboxing video here. Since I had Ben’s demo model, he’d already unwrapped it. Still, he kept it in the same box, so I have all components you’d receive with a new purchase.

The EagleEye comes with the camera, a power/data cable, manual, and a wall mounting plate with screws. The power/data cable is USB-C, and includes a screw-in clamp like the old VGA cables for monitors. Good to keep the camera connected, even if it falls!

Poly EagleEye Cube USB Camera

The camera itself has two connections in its back, USB-C and Ethernet. As you’ll see from the photos, it has a big aperture – much larger than most webcams.

EagleEye Cube on Desk

Cube USB and Ethernet Connections

The camera itself’s bigger than most webcams. About 2.5″ cubed. It’s a little big for my hand, but not as heavy as you’d think.

EagleEye in Hand

You can see the microphones in these photos. They’re almost invisible. That doesn’t diminish their effectiveness though, as we’ll see during testing.

Cube Microphone 1 (Right) Cube Microphone 2 (Left)

The bottom folds out to create a balancing stand. This way you can balance it on a laptop screen. Ben did so during our demo. I did it as well. Little on the rickety side with my laptop, but it works much better on a TV.

EagleEye Balancing Stand

The EagleEye can output video at:

  • 1080p60 – 1080p display, from USB or Ethernet.
  • 720p60 – 720p display, from USB or Ethernet.
  • 4K30 – You do get 4K from this, but it’s through USB only.

Test 1: Compatibility

Poly clearly meant the EagleEye Cube for use with its conferencing products. However, it’s also Certified for Skype for Business, Teams, Teams Rooms, and Zoom. So let’s do a few compatibility tests.

First, direct compatibility with Windows. I plugged the camera into my laptop. It recognized the EagleEye immediately. However, when I checked my Settings, I found a ‘no driver’ error. Uh oh!

EagleEye Driver Error Win10 Settings

Luckily, I knew how to fix this. This camera has a companion app: the Polycom Companion App.

I downloaded & installed the app, and voila! Full recognition.

EagleEye Driver Fixed Win10 Settings

Test 2: Skype for Business Integration

Next, I changed the default Video Device in my Skype for Business client to use the EagleEye. Several self-viewings and video calls later, I’d say it’s far superior to my built-in camera in terms of color quality.

Poly Companion App Test

Behold, my hand in 4K!

However, at this point I have to give one caveat – don’t move the camera once it’s set! Whenever I moved it, I noticed a brief delay in the feed – about 1 second. Then the camera refocused and all was well.

EagleEye Skype for Business Test

After this I used it on my normal meetings for a couple days (Skype Meetings and GoToMeetings). While your experience may differ from mine, I will say that no meeting had a video issue.

Smooth playback. No audio trouble. My avatar window looked as sharp as a high-class TV.

Notable Camera Feature: Speaker Tracking

At this stage, I should point out one of this camera’s impressive features. The EagleEye incorporates smart sensing technology called “Speaker Tracking.”

Just like you’d expect, this allows it to automatically focus on the speaker in a room, adjusting the video feed to show them. The tracking zeroes in on a person talking, the most recent movement…even scuffing a shoe can draw its gaze.

EagleEye Speaking Tracking LED

Note the green LED along the top. It’s indicating where the focus is right now.

If no one speaks, or multiple people talk at the same time, the EagleEye refocuses on the overall group in its field of view.

Test 3: Conferencing Platforms

I saw during the demo that the EagleEye worked natively with the Poly Studio X30 and X50. No surprise there.

I also wanted to test it on other conferencing platforms – like our in-house RealPresence Trio. The EagleEye is newer than the Trio…would they cooperate? The specs say they will. Time to confirm!

When I plugged it into our Trio directly, I received an ‘Overcurrent Failure Detected’ error. Searches indicated a problem with the USB port, which I tested with my laptop and discounted. Maybe just improper choice of connection on my part. Still, worth nothing.

Overcurrent Error Cube

Plugging the EagleEye into the Trio’s Visual+ unit instead worked perfectly. Our current camera is a Logitech C930e. I don’t know if you can see the difference, but I’m posting some photos of our picture-in-picture.

 

Skype for Business Logitech Cam

Picture-in-Picture with our Logitech Cam…

Skype for Business EagleEye Cam

…and with the EagleEye Cube.

The 4K resolution activates by default. I didn’t have to tell the EagleEye, or our Trio, anything.

This is a screenshot taken on my phone, of me on the video in a Skype Meeting. Very meta, wouldn’t you say?

Screenshot Skype for Business Video

Now that it worked with our Trio, the test changes to behavior. Specifically, stress testing. How well would this fancy 4K, auto-tracking camera work under load? Will it slow down? Go pixelated? Crash on me?

I didn’t see any of that. During the demo, we had a presenter join us from New Jersey. Can’t get more ‘cross country’ than that. The video-to-audio connection went as smoothly as if he stood in the room with us.

As a second test, I invited contacts from two other locations into a Skype Meeting in our conference room. One was down in Southern California, while the other’s in Las Vegas.

Results were the same. We chatted for a few minutes, and found each of us saw zero jitter or lag time.

(I recognize that this is partly an issue of bandwidth, not just the camera. We have plenty of bandwidth here…but the Las Vegas contact didn’t. Standard cable connection. Still, no issues.)

The Verdict: One of the Best Cameras You Can Use for Online Meetings

Overall, I came away quite impressed with the EagleEye Cube. It’s a lot of camera in a small box. It’s “smart” enough to make conferencing more engaging, but not overly complicated or buggy.

The EagleEye Cube is compatible with these conferencing platforms:

  • Microsoft Teams
  • Poly G7500 2.1 or above
  • Poly Trio 8500/8800
  • RealPresence Group Series 6.2.1 or above
  • Skype for Business
  • Teams Rooms
  • Zoom

Here’s a data sheet for your quick reference: EagleEye Cube Datasheet (PDF)

If you have the bandwidth to run your meetings on these platforms, you’re well-served with an EagleEye Cube. Everyone will appreciate the 4K clarity too.

We received no compensation for this review – other than the loan of the camera, of course. We are a Poly Partner though, so if you’re interested in the EagleEye, drop us a line.

Does your office use Poly’s EagleEye cameras? Share your experience!

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmail

The Skype for Business Insider Year in Review – 2019 Edition

Hello readers! We interrupt your holiday-shopping, end-of-year-system-checks madness for the final Skype for Business Insider post of 2019.

You may have noticed that posting frequency went down this year. That’s due to the indefatigable demon we know as “Lack of Time.” This demon plagued me pretty much every day.

I apologize for the frequency drop. Don’t worry though—I can explain!

2019 Year in Review

2019 was a pretty good year for PlanetMagpie. Our Texas office is growing, we completed several new websites (and have 3 more in the works), and we added several new Support customers.

We expanded the number of services in our cloud data center—mostly related to data security and automated backups for customer accounts. (I don’t need to tell you how much the cyberattack risk has grown this year!)

We even got a new office dog! Meet Homer.

Homer Office Dog

You can see more of him, and the other dogs, over on our Instagram.

Unfortunately, all the activity left us behind on some internal projects…including this blog. It’s not going away! Don’t worry. We still have many topics to address.

Speaking of, let me address the big one. What, in my mind, constitutes the biggest change in the growing Teams ecosystem this year.

The Big 2019 Teams Announcement

We saw something in 2019 that flabbergasted me. I had to check the announcement source three ways to make sure it wasn’t a prank.

It wasn’t. We are getting a Linux client for Teams!

Linux Client for Teams – UserVoice

Now, we’re a Microsoft support shop. Almost all of our customers use Windows machines. The rest use Mac first, and Linux a distant second. Still, I see this as a huge step forward in “Linux on the Desktop” business acceptance.

Besides, I know many of you use Linux and wanted the Teams client. It’s still in beta, but you got it!

What’s Coming in 2020 for the Blog

I have two major goals for this blog next year:

  1. Document the full experience of moving from Skype for Business Server 2015 to Skype for Business Server 2019. We’ve provisioned some resources for this already; just need to fight the Time Demon for the necessary time.
  2. Major updates for existing posts. Some of the popular posts need a little polish. Others need big changes, in light of tech developments since their publication. I don’t plan on removing any how-to posts; people still visit for Lync-related material, so I want them to find what they need.

It looks like we’ll begin to see the “big wave” of Skype for Business-to-Teams migrations next year as well. I’m watching customers for any useful information encountered during migration.

Final Thoughts for the Year (Your Feedback Welcome)

Now, my last & most important item of business. What Skype for Business/Teams-related topics would YOU like us to cover?

Please share your ideas & requests in the comments.

We at PlanetMagpie hope everyone has a safe & happy holiday this year! We’ll see you back here in January, ready to tackle the big 2020.

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmail

Video Conferencing Fragmentation: Boon or Brambles?

Video Conferencing Market Brambles

You’ve heard the phrase, “an overabundance of choice?” We’ve reached that point for video conferencing solutions.

After I did the Video Interop Server post, I looked around a little more at video conferencing solutions. I found an enormous selection out there: Zoom, MegaMeeting, Join.me, Google Meet, MeetMonk, GoToMeeting, Vox.io, WebEx, WhatsApp, and so on…

Video Conferencing Discussion

Okay, it’s Tuesday. That means we’re using Google for today’s meeting, right?
Photo by Rachel Danner on Unsplash.

We don’t need this many. Which compelled me to blog about the topic…because it can cause a serious problem with business-to-customer communication. Let me illustrate.

Too Many Video Conferencing Alternatives Clog Up Real Communication

In Ye Olden Conferencing Days, you used the phone lines. Conferences focused on audio first, and later, emailed files. Video came from an expensive equipment add-on, or not at all.

Now we’ve swung way off in the opposite direction. Video’s easier than audio to start up, on dozens of different platforms.

The market drives some of this, I know. Seems like we’re outpacing the market though, in a mad dash to find ‘the next video innovation’ before anyone else does. Problem is, this leaves a pile of mostly-functional, good-enough video solutions on the table from which businesses must pick.

Even worse: Some of these conferencing solutions won’t/can’t talk to each other!

For instance, Skype for Business and Zoom will integrate for video.
If you want to join a Skype Meeting with a GoToMeeting client? Got some bad news for you…

What Too Many Solutions Results in for the Video Conferencing World

In terms of ‘boon’ or ‘brambles,’ I think we’ve passed the boon stage. Video conferencing is ubiquitous; any business can run its meetings from virtually anywhere. That’s the good part.

The bad part is, we’re in a ‘Brambles’ stage now. Too many solutions, not enough interoperability. A thousand islands with not a bridge in sight.

This causes the major problem I referenced above: If your business uses one video conferencing solution, and your customer uses a different one, odds are high you won’t be able to use video in your communications!

Video Conferencing Solution Tug-of-War

“I’ll send you a Skype Invite.” “Sorry, we don’t use that. Let’s use our solution instead!” “Uhm…”
Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash.

“But Chris,” you might ask, “We have Zapier now! This isn’t a big deal anymore.”

True! We do have the Zapier connectors/”Zaps”, and I’m very glad for those. They have a good number for video calls.

However, this goes around the problem instead of solving it. An add-on can’t always match native functionality. Some internal networks won’t allow add-ons either.

Now, Zapier can’t halt the spread of video solutions, nor should they try. They’re responding to an existing market with their apps, and I wish them continued success.

Unfortunately, the brambles continue to grow.

Companies making the video solutions want to ‘own’ their customers’ communications. Interoperability, for whatever reason, doesn’t appear a high priority. Even though it could easily extend a solution’s long-term use.

Where does this go? I see two possible paths:

1. Continued Fragmentation. People keep their platforms. The existing software gains more users. A few may choose to inter-communicate, but mostly keep to their own systems. This preserves the frustrations of one business having conferences with another. We end up with a minefield of video solutions, each jealously guarding ‘their’ user base.

OR

2. Slow Consolidation. People begin to move to similar platforms, for the sake of integrated communications with other companies (e.g. vendors). Some platforms die out, whether by choice (Microsoft retiring Skype for Business in favor of Teams) or by withering (users move away from the platform to another option).

If one of these seems more likely to you (or you have a third option), please comment below.

In the meantime, if a business doesn’t have a video conferencing solution & wants one, what should they choose?

2-Minute Guide on How to Pick a Video Conferencing Solution

This by-no-means-comprehensive guide should help you select a few video solutions to test. That way you’re not spending hours comparing features, fiddling with hardware, or stressing over connection issues.

  1. Do you use Office 365? Go for Teams.
  2. Which of these features do you use the most?
    • Video Calls (1-to-1) – Skype for Business, Skype Consumer, and Zoom work well.
    • Video Conferences, Scheduled – See Question 3.
    • Video Conferences, Impromptu – Skype for Business again, as well as GoToMeeting and Cisco WebEx.
  3. Ask 3 customers what they use.
    • This gives you a couple options, but not too many.
    • If 2 of your customers use the same video conferencing solution, that one’s your best pick.
  4. Need a free video option, at least to start? Try out Zoom or FreeConference.

(Note: Not all of these solutions have additional team communications tools, like chat. I focused just on video.)

What do you think? Should we aim, as a group, to consolidate? Stay fragmented? Work on interoperability? Just wait things out?

What’s the best way out of these video conferencing brambles?

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmail

One Version of Skype for Business Will Retire in 2021. The Other Version Won’t (Not Yet)

Skype for Business Online Retirement

No, not that kind. Photo by Elena Saharova on Unsplash.

Hello “Insiders!” I know I haven’t posted much lately. Went on a short vacation, and we’re now in the middle of 5 (yes, five!) website builds running at the same time

I’m also working on a couple big posts. The Time Lords willing, I’ll have them up before the end of the year.

In the meantime, let’s talk retirement.

Skype for Business Online Retirement

No, not that kind. Software retirement. Well, I guess it applies to some developers…
Photo by Elena Saharova on Unsplash.

Skype for Business (Online) Retiring in 2 Years

If you haven’t heard, MS will retire Skype for Business (Online) July 31, 2021. After that, it’s Teams all the way in Office 365.

No big surprise. We all knew it was coming. But what’s important for me to point out is that this retirement date only applies to the ONLINE version. The one on which Teams has chewed almost since its launch day.

That’s not the case for Skype for Business Server. Our good old on-prem version will stick around a while longer.

Skype4B Server Version Remains Supported Until 2025

Skype for Business Server 2015 mainstream support ends October 13, 2020. Extended support remains available until October 14, 2025.

Skype for Business Server 2019 will receive mainstream support until January 9, 2024. This is interesting though—its Extended support will also run until October 14, 2025.

Both versions of Skype for Business Server running out of support on the same date, a little more than 5 years hence. That’s still a good chunk of time to use the software.

Skype4B Conferencing

Let’s keep doing this.
Photo by Arlington Research on Unsplash.

Where does this leave you? A retirement date that far out, and only on one version, means nobody needs to run around in headless-chicken mode. Here’s some suggestions depending on your current Skype4B situation:

  1. If you’re on Skype for Business Server 2019 or plan to migrate there soon – Keep doing what you’re doing. Let us know if you need help with setup.
  2. Running Skype for Business Server 2015? Consider a move to Server 2019 next year. You’ll still have plenty of time with full support to get your money’s worth.
  3. If you’re on Skype for Business Online & considering a move to Teams – Weigh the schedule in light of your workforce. If you have a large employee base, start planning now. If you’re in a smaller company, no need to panic. Run the move when you expect a slower time (does anyone have those anymore?).

If you fall under C, this post has some points about doing a “Skypexit” that may help out: Microsoft Techdays 2019: Skypexit with Marten – Kressmark Unified Communications

You Don’t Have to Move off Skype for Business (Server) if You Don’t Want To

If it sounds like I’m still swinging in Skype for Business Server’s defense…well, I am. I like the platform for its power and its usability. It has a reliable history to boot. In fact, we still have one customer running Lync Server on-prem! (I think we’ve tried to move them off for what, 2 years now?)

What do you think of the Skype for Business Online retirement?

 

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmail

How to Put Teams Users and Skype for Business Users in the Same Room

If your organization has decided to move off its Skype for Business Server deployment to Teams, you’ll hit an in-between period. A time when some users are on Skype4B, and some have moved to Teams.

Can they still communicate with one another during this period?

It’s possible…but it’ll take some extra configuration. Let’s talk about what you’ll need to do.

How to Make Skype for Business and Teams Talk to One Another

Before any Skype4B user can talk to a Teams user, the disparate systems have to talk to one another. Therefore, you’ll need to setup communications between your Skype for Business Server and your Teams tenant.

Teams-Skype4B Users Talking

Teams—Skype for Business connection in dog form.
Photo by Kyle Smith on Unsplash.

Most of the work’s done on the Skype side for this. You must change Skype for Business to work in “Native Interop” mode. Here’s some migration and interoperability guidance on the basics.

Essentially, any on-prem deployment must move to a Hybrid deployment. If you already run Skype4B in Hybrid mode, half the work’s already done. You can skip the Part 1 section below & move to Part 2.

But before you do that, let me call out a major communication limitation.

Limitations on Native Interop

Before we dive into the config work required, let me make this point. Users talking between Skype for Business and Teams will have ONLY TWO TOOLS to communicate:

  • One-to-one IM/Chats
  • Voice calls

That’s it. No video conference, no group chats, no emojis or file transfers. Not available.

If you have a long transition period, doing the config for this limited communication toolset may make sense. However, if you’re doing a fast cut-over (e.g., less than 4 months), then it doesn’t seem worth the time investment. I would recommend skipping it in that case.

Still here? Great! Let’s talk about making Teams and Skype4B talk.

Part 1: Setting Hybrid Mode with Azure AD Connect

If you’re not already familiar with Azure AD Connect, it’s basically a connection between your Skype for Business Server’s Active Directory and an Office 365 tenant. AD Connect synchronizes your users’ accounts in Active Directory with Azure Active Directory on O365, and vice versa.

This sets up the question of homing. If you created all of your users in your own on-prem Active Directory, then the users are ‘homed’ locally. If you have Teams users you created within your Office 365 tenant, those users are ‘homed’ in Azure Active Directory.

This is important for one reason: Interop between Teams and Skype for Business users only works if you home the user online.

Effectively, you’ll have to transfer all of your Skype for Business users up into the Teams O365 tenant. They’ll still use the on-prem server (in fact they won’t even notice the difference), but they have to live up there to talk to Teams users.

This post would run on forever if I detailed the whole AD Connect setup process. If you do need to set this up, please refer to these MS documentation pages:

Once you’ve verified AD Connect runs properly, you’ll be able to move Skype4B users up into Azure AD. Fortunately, this part’s not too time-consuming. You have two possible methods:

  1. Use the Move-CsUser cmdlet.
    • Example: “Move-CsUser -Identity username@yourdomain.com -Target sipfed.online.lync.com -Credential $cred -HostedMigrationOverrideUrl $url”
  2. Use the Skype for Business Control Panel.
    1. Select Users in the Panel window.
    2. Use Find to locate the users you need to re-home.
    3. Select the users, and click the Action dropdown menu. Choose Move selected users to Skype for Business Online.
    4. In the wizard, click Next.
    5. You may see an Office 365 prompt. Sign in using an administrative account. (Must end in “.onmicrosoft.com”!)
    6. Click Next two more times to complete the move.

Now it’s time for Part 2.

Part 2: Change Users’ TeamsUpgrade Modes

Every Teams user has a mode assigned to it. Same with Skype4B users. The default mode is “Islands” – meant to signify the user as either on the Skype for Business ‘island’ or the Teams ‘island.’

Skype4 for Business Users Island Mode

Hey guys? Can anybody hear me? …hello?
Photo by Will Langenberg on Unsplash.

Now, that won’t work if we want people talking between islands. Each & every user, on both sides, needs to have this mode changed for interop.

Other possible modes are:

  • TeamsOnly – For Teams users only
  • SfBOnly – For Skype4B users only
  • SfBWithTeamsCollabAndMeetings – This is called “Meetings First,” meant for using Teams’ meetings as an introduction to the platform.
  • SfBWithTeamsCollab** – This is the mode we want. It facilitates native interop.

In SfBWithTeamsCollab mode, users still use Skype for Business for IM, calls, and meetings. (If you used SfBWithTeamsCollabAndMeetings mode, your users would use Teams for meetings instead. Everything else is the same.)

To change users’ modes, we’ll use the Grant-TeamsUpgradePolicy cmdlet.

If you want to do this user-by-user, use this format:

“Grant-CsTeamsUpgradePolicy -Identity username@yourdomain.com -PolicyName SfBWithTeamsCollab”

If you want to do it for all users, use this format:

“Grant-CsTeamsUpgradePolicy -PolicyName SfBWithTeamsCollab -Global”

As I understand, that’s pretty much it. Changing this mode allows Skype for Business users to chat with Teams users, after all the prerequisites are in place.

Dogs Playing Teams - Skype4B Users

Hey Bob, glad we can talk again. Let me show you this meme…
Photo credit: Bennilover via Photopin

(By the way, this process also sets up the users to move completely to Teams. It doesn’t mean you have to move them, but you save yourself time this way.)

Teams, Can You Hear Us Now? Good!

I remember our team having some serious issues with Azure AD Connect, the first time we hybridized a Skype for Business Server. (In fairness, that was over 3 years ago. The tech and documentation have improved since then.)

Still, I urge caution if you need to deploy it in your existing on-prem environment. If possible, use a staging environment to test AD Connect setup first, so you’re comfortable. I believe that’s what we did.

What’s your status with Teams and/or Skype for Business? Using one or both? Comment below on your communication situation.

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmail

Workplace Messaging Report by Mio Out – 2019 Stats on ChatOps Usage

Hey Skype for Business/Teams/ChatOps fans! Just wanted to do a quick post about a new Workplace Messaging Report. Mio released it after surveying over 200 companies on their messaging apps/ChatOps trends & plans. I saw it posted on Twitter, read through, retweeted a few times, and then raced over here to share it.

Full report: https://dispatch.m.io/mio-workplace-messaging-report/

A few highlights I thought pertinent:

  • 57% of respondents believed more of their users would abandon Skype for Business in 2 years!
  • Of the other platforms, 56% thought those users would move to Teams, 41% to Cisco Webex Teams.
  • The Webex Teams UI tied with Slack’s UI (31% each) for user preference.
  • MS Teams and Skype for Business are neck-and-neck in overall usage—61% for Skype4B, 59% for Teams

 

Workplace Messaging Report

Cue Darth Vader “Nooooo!”

Image courtesy of Dispatch.m.io.

This is all making me think I need to look harder at Webex Teams!

The report has a lot more data, including some surprising numbers on Cisco endpoints. It’s very well-laid out too…only took a few minutes to absorb it all. Go check it out.

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmail

How to Choose A Business Chat Platform (2019 Version)

It’s time to add chat to your communications tools. Which chat platform should you adopt? Teams? Slack? Something else?

First off, take a breath. Your search has brought you to the right place. In this post we’ll go over the available chat platforms, discuss the pros & cons of each, and identify the criteria for you selecting your best option.

Chances are you’re looking at chat platforms for one of these reasons:

    • Users are clamoring for a chat option
    • Need to get users off Skype (Consumer)
    • Time to replace less-advanced communications platforms
    • Worried about a data breach through user behavior (this one’s not limited to chat, of course)

Unless there’s another reason – if so, please share it in the comments!

Let’s address all of these reasons in one handy guide. I’ve put anchor links below for quick reference, but I recommend you read the entire guide. Only takes about 8 minutes.

TABLE OF CONTENTS


Clarify Your Chat Goals

First, before anything else, you’ll want to identify what you need from the chat platform. What it must do for you from an IT standpoint, and what it must do for the business’ communications.

Consider factors like these when identifying. These have all come from our own customers’ initial discussions about chat and/or voice offerings. Some contradict others, so make sure to decide which is most important.

  • Easy transition from another communications system
  • Easy adoption of a brand-new platform
  • Omni-device (apps for every major OS)
  • Focused on Windows devices
  • Security is paramount for all devices & data
  • Security should not get in the way of ease of use
  • Works within an existing cloud subscription we have (e.g. Office 365)
  • Stands alone, needs no additional subscriptions or hardware
  • Works in the cloud
  • Works on-premise
  • Has a monthly fee, flat or per-user
  • Pay up front, no monthly fees
  • Has voice and video options built-in
  • Video is equally important to chat
  • Voice is equally important to chat

I’ll refer back to this list several times, so keep it in mind. Next up, we must narrow our focus. This is for business use; therefore, we need to look at only business chat offerings.

Focusing on Business Chat Offerings

This guide will focus on chat platforms where chat is the centerpiece product.

That’s why I won’t look at platforms like Fuze and Zoom here. I’m also leaving off consumer-targeted chat platforms, like Discord and Telegram.

No knock against any of these, of course. I like Telegram, but I don’t use it for business. For purposes of this guide, I’m focusing on chat platforms targeted for business use.

In order to qualify, they must meet these criteria:

  1. Meant for business users
  2. Security-conscious
  3. Stable
  4. Manageable
  5. Good support options available
  6. Work within existing office environments

That leaves us with a handful of platforms. Each very similar to one another. All crazy usable. All with at least decent security, mobile apps, and lots of integrations. So how do you choose?

Let’s start by identifying the elements you should consider.

ChatOps Adoption – Elements to Consider

Will your users accept a chat platform? Will your current IT infrastructure play nice with one? What about security? These are all important elements to consider…long before you trial anything.

Will your users adopt?

A chat platform’s useless if nobody wants to use it. You may have fielded requests for chat already…if so, you’re good! If not, you’ll want to check their thoughts.

The solution? Survey your users. A simple email, or SurveyMonkey form. I’ve written out a few questions you can use in it.

  • If the company adopted a new chat platform, would you use it to communicate with co-workers?
  • Which chat platform would you prefer using?
    • [List the options you’re considering]
  • Do you use a chat app personally?
    • [e.g. Telegram, Discord, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp]
  • How do you think chat would help you in your daily routine?
  • Do our customers use a chat platform in their work? If so, which?

If users vote the idea down, well, less work for you! But if you get a positive response, and these days I expect you will, then you can move to the next element. Compatibility.

Which chat platforms work with your current infrastructure?

Most office networks will work with a cloud-based platform like Slack or Teams as-is. Check your max bandwidth though—you might overtax a smaller pipe.

An on-prem chat offering will obviously require hardware & network changes. That’s a trade-off you’ll have to make, depending on budget & company policy.

Which features are necessary?

While most chat platforms have the same feature sets, they’re not all equal. For instance, Teams still doesn’t support private channels. If that’s something your users want, then Teams is (for now) off the list.

Identify the features your users would like the most, either through the survey or through conversations. These features come up frequently among our customers:

  • Private conversations/channels
  • Talking with customers on an existing platform
  • Use chat app on phones (or blocking chat apps on phones)
  • Web-based only, app-based only, or both?
  • Voice call function built into chat
  • Integration with specific third-party services already in use

Pay Attention to Security

If I’d written this guide in 2016, this would be the biggest section. Think about it%—every chat user types out company IP in text format, every day, in a cloud-based medium that’s saved someplace you don’t control.

Fortunately for all of us, security around ChatOps has improved immensely since then. Every platform we’ll examine here has documented their security protections. Here are a few reference URLs to help your case-building:

That said, ChatOps adoption still requires some security updates on your network’s end. Pay attention to these adoption aspects as potential security risks:

  • MOBILE APPS—Handy, but they can leave chat conversations susceptible to data theft. Chats are not audio clips; they’re whole conversations in text form. Someone steals your phone, they could have a ton of your IP in their hands. As such, use 2FA on mobile apps, or limit who can use the mobile app at all.
  • GUEST ACCESS—Important to keep guest access regulated. Teams’ Office 365 account requirement helps with this, but also throws up a roadblock for ease of use. Slack is a little better with guest access, limiting adds with admin controls.
  • THIRD-PARTY INTEGRATIONS—If your users connect a third-party service with poor security, it can create a data leak. Make it clear that IT needs to know about integrations, and vet them first.
  • PRIVACY—Who owns the data? Most platforms will unequivocally say, “You do.” Still helps to check their TOS. Especially if you have GDPR to consider.

Remember Backups

If you choose a cloud-based chat platform, make sure to incorporate its logs into your backups. You may not think you’d need to back up chat conversations when they’re already in the cloud. However, if you’re using chat for work, remember…those conversations contain important information!

With a backup running, you’ve made sure you know where chat logs are stored (and you can retrieve them). I did a post on this for the SpinSucks Blog recently.

Open the link and then come back. We have a lot more to cover!

———

Now that we have a clearer sense of what to watch for, let’s break out the best business chat platforms, one by one, and weigh them.

The Major Chat Platform Options

There are four ‘major’ chat platforms in use today. The most popular, the one you hear about all the time, is Slack.

With good reason. Slack is a titan of chat—near-infinitely flexible, stable as you can get, friendly with just about every device out there, and designed to support business users. Some businesses run their whole operation through Slack. The company supporting it is stable and plans to go public soon.

Slack Chat Window

The famous Slack window. Names obscured for privacy, of course.

Choose Slack if:

  1. Ease of use is paramount
  2. Your company do not already have an Office 365 tenant subscription
  3. You use Linux on some user devices

——

Next up, Microsoft Teams.

Teams’ recent growth indicates that people who are new to business chat go for it the most. Not surprising either; it has a short learning curve, Microsoft’s weight behind it, and free options. It isn’t perfect; Teams loses to Slack on a few points (Linux clients, adaptability). However, its incorporation of Skype for Business voice & video tools enhance its appeal.

Teams Chat Window

Choose Teams if:

  1. Your company has an Office 365 tenant subscription, with accounts for the majority of users
  2. You primarily use Windows devices
  3. You want an easy transition from an existing communications system

——

Thirdly, we have Skype for Business Server.

The only on-prem offering in the majors. For security-conscious mid-markets and enterprises, this is THE chat platform of choice. It requires more up-front investment, but a search of this blog alone will tell you how much communications power Skype for Business provides.

Skype4B Contact List

(You might wonder why this is on here, when I made chat the centerpiece. Many would consider Skype for Business Server a voice product, with chat & conferencing added. Be that as it may, we use the IM tool more than any other in our office. So do most of our customers. Besides, this IS the Skype for Business Insider Blog. So it’s included.)

Choose Skype for Business Server if:

  1. Data/IP security concerns are high
  2. You must meet regulatory compliance such as GDPR or SOX 404
  3. You have 150+ users
  4. You previously used HipChat Data Center and need to switch

——

Rounding out the major platforms is Google Hangouts Chat. I find this offering a little TOO simplistic, and Google’s privacy shenanigans may dent Hangouts’ appeal. But it’s still popular, cheap, and sports a similar integration level to other G-Suite offerings as Teams.

Google Hangouts Chat

Image courtesy of G-Suite.

Choose Hangouts if:

  1. You already use G-Suite for your company’s email
  2. You do not have an Office 365 tenant subscription
  3. You have users who like using Skype Consumer in the office (Hangouts is similar, making a transition easier to accept)

The Challengers/Alternative Chat Platforms

Maybe the major platforms don’t appeal to you for whatever reason. You’re not a Microsoft/Google fan, or you want to test out several options before making a decision. I love testing myself, so if you’re in the latter camp, welcome! Here are a few ‘challenger’ chat platforms to whet your appetite.

These are chat platforms not as popular as the above options, but still chat-focused and business-oriented. I haven’t done official reviews of these yet; as such, please take the following information as general advice.

First up is Twist. Made by a team already known for a popular to-do app, Twist takes a one-topic-per-thread approach to chat. It focuses on simplicity, sticking to chat as its core and leaving the rest to third-party integrations. Not many of those yet, but they already put in a Zapier integration…clever.

Twist Chat Window

Image courtesy of TechRepublic.

Choose Twist if:

  1. You haven’t used chat in the office yet & want to try it out
  2. You’ve already tried one of the major platforms, and users complain of confusion or overwhelm
  3. You need to keep price low (their Unlimited tier only costs $5/month per user)

——

Next up is Mattermost.

Our sole on-prem Challenger. This one’s not trying to compete with Skype for Business though…they’re competing with Slack. Right up to compatibility with Slack’s third-party integrations. It’s probably one of the most extensive open-source projects I’ve come across.

This platform has teeth. A hefty feature set, good documentation, and an unapologetic targeting toward the DevOps community. That may make it a little more technical than some businesses want. Even so, it’s worth a look.

Mattermost Chat Window

Image courtesy of Mattermost Documentation.

Choose Mattermost if:

  1. You’d like an on-prem offering, but can’t/don’t want to pay for Skype for Business Server
  2. You like to tinker with the tech
  3. You support open-source projects
  4. You’re a tech company and want a chat platform that can keep up
  5. You previously used HipChat Data Center and don’t want to move to Skype for Business

——

Thirdly we have Wire. I’ve seen this one on the fringes of chat discussion, but know very little about it. Wire places a heavy emphasis on security. End-to-end encryption, secure guest rooms, and so on. I think this is an excellent position for a challenger chat platform to take. If they can back the claim up (and I’ll look for that in a review), then I expect this one to grow.

Wire Chat Windows

Image courtesy of Wire.com.

Choose Wire if:

  1. Your company places a high value on security for all communications
  2. You need a backup communications option for emergencies (Wire offers a “Wire Red” service for this)
  3. You’re in the EU and would like a chat platform based there

——

Finally, we have Glip. I only came across Glip a few days ago! It’s a chat offering from RingCentral, the cloud-based phone service. We work with them for some customers, though none mentioned Glip to me.

From reviews I read, Glip is apparently popular with marketing agencies. I think the ‘unlimited guest users’ feature has something to do with that. The in-client document collaboration too. I’ll look into that myself.

Glip Chat Window

Image courtesy of RingCentral Blog.

Glip doesn’t appear to have any “stand-out” features. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from Slack or Twist, right up to third-party integrations. Pricing’s similarly cheap too. It’s an alternative, if you want to explore.

Choose Glip if:

  1. You already use RingCentral
  2. You’re comparing several chat offerings at once

Chat Pricing

“What do these platforms cost?” That’s what Management will want to know first, right?

I did the legwork on pricing too. This wouldn’t be a complete guide without it. I divided the platforms into Cloud-Based and On-Prem. You’re either paying a small monthly fee per user, or paying up front for server hardware & bandwidth.

Monthly Cost (Cloud-Based)

  1. SLACK – Standard tier is $6.67/month per user, Plus tier is $12.50/month per user. Plus does come with better support and more administrative options.
  2. TEAMS – Free, though I recommend getting an Office 365 subscription if you don’t already have one. Three options I’d recommend considering when Teams is your main focus: Business Premium ($12.50/month per user), E1 ($8.00/month per user), and E3 ($20.00/month per user).
  3. GOOGLE HANGOUTS CHAT – Part of G-Suite for business users. Business tier is $10/month per user, though the Enterprise tier ($25/month per user) comes with more security.
  4. TWIST – $5/month per user. For business, don’t even consider the Free version; it comes with a 30-day limit on viewing past messages. With Unlimited, you can always access the full message history.
  5. WIRE – Sliding-scale, starting at €6/month per user. Enterprises go down to €4/month per user. To use their Wire Red emergency collaboration service, you must contact their Sales department.
  6. GLIP – Like Twist, there’s a Free tier and a Standard tier at $5/month per user. In this case, the difference is the total time allocated for shared video; Free accounts get 500 minutes total, while Standard accounts get 1,000 minutes/month per user.

Up-Front Cost (On-Prem)

  1. SKYPE FOR BUSINESS (SERVER) – Cost comes in initial deployment. No monthly recurring fees for the software, but you may pay for a SIP trunk mostly depending on configuration. Check my Pricing for Skype for Business and Teams post for details.
  2. MATTERMOST – Free to download & use (it’s open source). You’ll need a server to host it of course, like Skype for Business Server. The Mattermost team does charge for Enterprise accounts though, starting at $39/year per user.

Try Out Some ChatOps Platforms Before Deciding

Okay, you’ve read all the material in this guide. Your users do want to use chat. You have go-ahead from C-level. Time to start the last part of the search—testing.

Make sure to try out at least two chat platforms. Not just yourself either; invite a handful of tech-savvy users to trial the chat with you. (That way you’re not talking to yourself the whole time. It gets lonely…trust me.)

While many of the same visual elements are the same for all these options, how they work with their own features, and how they interoperate with other tools, can make a big difference in your overall experience. We’ve had customers hate Slack but love Teams (and vice versa). One customer absolutely loved Skype for Business Server’s IM tool. It all depends on the office environment and user tastes.

Using a chat platform in your business can save a ton of time, and make everyone more productive to boot. I hope this guide helps you select the right one!

What chat platform did you end up going with? Please share!

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmail

The ChatOps War: The Battle Rages

Three major powers clash over and over. Challengers appear on the horizon. The productivity of millions hangs in the balance. Welcome back to the ChatOps War.

The Current State of ChatOps

Messaging apps. Online chat. Collaboration tools. Call them what you will. ChatOps (as I’ll refer to them here) have exploded across the business world in only a few years.

As with every new frontier, there’s a sort of ‘Wild West’ period. A few businesses pop up early, grabbing much of the attention & pushing growth forward. Then upstarts appear to claim slices of the pie. Big names in related industries wade in to crush the upstarts, early-stagers gear up…and everyone fights for market share.

That’s where we are now. Fighting stage. The War is on.

ChatOps War

Some battles are more intense than others.
Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash.

Why take the time to examine it though? What’s the advantage in surveying the battle scenes? As long as people can use their preferred messaging app, everything’s fine…right?

While true, there are two reasons. One, not everyone can use the ChatOps platform they want to. More on that below.

Two, it takes time & effort to move a company onto any platform. Especially if they’re already on another platform! Migrations take time, cause user frustration, and drive up support costs (temporarily at least).

When you decide to move onto a ChatOps platform, you need to make sure it’s one that will:

  1. Stick around
  2. Do what you need it to
  3. Work well for your user base, AND
  4. Remain affordable.

Hence my reason for this post. Let’s see what’s happening in the ChatOps War.

Who’s On Top?

We have up-to-date information to start us off—a December 2018 survey conducted by Spiceworks. Love those guys.

Business Chat Apps in 2018: Top Players and Adoption Plans

The biggest move came from Microsoft Teams. It surged ahead in 2018, surpassing Slack to become the #2 collaboration tool in the business world. (Microsoft’s moves to place Teams front and center in O365 certainly contribute to Teams’ growth.)

Who’s #1? Skype for Business, of course. For now at least…its own cousin wants the crown.

Wrestling with Messaging App Choices

Watch out, he’s going for the nose! What would the ‘nose’ be in a messaging app?
Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash.

The Defeated

Workplace, Facebook’s entry into messaging apps, died out of the gate. It’s not a terrible chat offering, as I mentioned in my 2017 review. But it didn’t really hold its own against Slack or Skype for Business, and Facebook’s overall privacy problems kneecapped Workplace as well.

The Challengers Nipping at Heels

I became aware last year of several newer, standalone ChatOps services. I do plan more extensive reviews of the services later this year, but for now, let’s meet the ‘Challengers.’

TWISTTwist.com
This is a chat offering by the makers of Todoist, a popular to-do list app. You see this reflected in Twist’s structure: It’s somewhat like a group chat/email hybrid. Very similar to Teams in its Conversation-based structure. Twist’s makers tout its structure as superior to Slack, by using threaded conversations everywhere (thus making all communication easier to follow). It’s a subtle shift, but notable enough.

MATTERMOSTMatterMost.org
Mattermost acts a lot like Slack. With one MAJOR difference – it’s self-hosted. You run Mattermost on your own servers. It’s an on-prem chat platform!

The standard version is free, with a two-tier paid version that adds in Active Directory/LDAP integration, faster support, and several other useful tools. The Mattermost software runs on Linux, and has apps for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android…and of course Linux PCs.

Slack does have a Linux app, so this isn’t ‘Slack for Linux.’ It’s an open-source, on-prem alternative. Not quite as refined as Slack, but users report good experiences with it.

ZOOMZoom.us
Wait, Zoom? Don’t they just do video conferencing? Yes, and they do a pretty good job of it as I understand. But it turns out they have a messaging app bundled in too—Zoom Chat!

Zoom’s primary focus remains on conferencing, and rightfully so. The Chat app looks like Slack’s younger cousin. Useful, but meant as a supplement to the video tools. A good value-add.

———

These challengers for the most part have simpler feature sets and a nimbler approach to ChatOps. They’re definitely aiming for Teams/Slack’s heels as well. How much market share they win over will depend, I think, on two things:

  1. Which chat features/structures become the most popular among businesses
  2. Microsoft’s Teams expansion efforts
ChatOps Competitor

I will take your customers…and your treats!
Photo by Daniel Lincoln on Unsplash.

Skype4B’s Crown is Under Threat

At this point, Microsoft has forced Skype for Business almost completely out of the small business sector in favor of Teams. This will not get better. Skype4B will eventually lose its crown to Teams. We all knew this of course…but it’s here. It’s happening as you read this.

Enterprises still have the on-prem Skype for Business Server 2019 version, of course. I remain convinced that this will be the last on-prem version Microsoft will release though. By the time we’d roll around to a new server version—2021 or 2022—everyone using ChatOps will either be on Teams, Slack, or a challenger. They will all have full Enterprise Voice capability. Phones, video, and chat will all mesh together.

Now, let me give a prediction about Google Hangouts. You saw several ChatOps players in this post…but I’ll bet you noticed that Google Hangouts was not among them. That’s because I predict Google Hangouts won’t become a threat. Not to Skype for Business or to Teams.

The Spiceworks survey indicates that Google Hangouts use went up from 2016-2018…11% to 18% adoption rates, respectively. That’s because Google targets enterprise users with its Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet products. Moving away from smaller G-Suite customers and potentially alienating them. Thanks to challengers like Twist, Google can no longer make the ‘easier to use’ claim that kept them around.

I also think Google’s privacy concerns and business practices will scare off enterprises in next 2 years. The fact that Google split Hangouts in two, coupled with appealing value propositions from Teams, also throw some tacks on the road.

2019 Will Bring Winners and Losers in the ChatOps War

Now we know the state of the ChatOps War. But there’s plenty more to come!

2019 is a ‘Battle Year,’ where we’ll see promotion, feature adds/updates, rises and falls. I could easily see any of the following occur:

  • Microsoft shortens its Skype for Business sunset schedule (UPDATE: Microsoft announced that it will shut down Skype for Business Online on July 31, 2021.)
  • Google buys Slack (please don’t)
  • A challenger like Twist or Mattermost starts eating into Teams’ market share, due to their independent-of-Microsoft nature
  • Former HipChat engineers come out with something new & exciting
  • Workplace and/or Hangouts quietly dies

This is something on which I’ll keep as close an eye as I can. Directly—we’re fielding Teams requests in the office, and at least one customer uses Slack. All from businesses under 100 employees.

Next post I’ll go into choosing your own chat platform. If you’re looking at all these options and wondering what the best choice is for your business? The next post will help you make that determination. Check back soon!

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmail

The 5 Most Useful Skype4B / Teams Posts in 2018

Let’s start 2019 with a refresher. 2018 was a busy year, with new content and updates for older, more evergreen content.

In today’s post I’ve listed our the 5 most popular posts in 2018, by number of unique visits.

If you’re a new reader, welcome! I hope these posts help start you on the road to broadening your Skype for Business/Teams expertise. If you’ve been here a while, glad you’re here. There’s plenty more to come in 2019.

The 5 Most Popular Skype for Business Insider Posts in 2018 (in order)

Can You Turn Off Skype for Business New Message Alerts?
This one definitely struck a chord. Many readers commented about their desire to turn off New Message alerts entirely, or control their appearance. Short version: You have some control over notifications when on mobile. But on desktop, you’re kind of stuck.

Pricing for Skype for Business and Teams: The 2017 Update
In 2015, the original pricing post had thousands of visits within 7 days of publication. When I did this 2017 update, it too garnered thousands of visits up front, and then maintained a streak of traffic all through 2018.

It seems like Microsoft’s pricing shifts keep accelerating…and obfuscating. The post remains accurate, though I’ll put up another pricing post soon to incorporate Skype for Business Server 2019 and current Teams costs.

Working Dog on Hay Bale

Always good to take pride in your work.
Photo by Aitor Romero on Unsplash.

Making Sure You See Skype for Business Notifications – No Matter What!
This post talked about SuperToast as a method of guaranteeing you’d see Skype for Business notifications. It has limitations—no Mac version, no guarantee of Teams compatibility—but it does prove useful. Commenters did point out that some businesses ban third-party add-ons as a precaution (and a valid one), which can hamper SuperToast’s usability.

3 Ways to Make Sure Contact Photos Display in Skype for Business
Essentially, this is me documenting a troubleshooting progress I didn’t need to undertake. I explored a couple of options for making contact photos appear…both of which can indeed resolve a display issue. Just not in my case.

However, I want to note: in April or May of 2018, we had a customer with the same issue. Troubleshooting Point 1, purging an old local cache file & forcing a server refresh, DID resolve the issue. So my meandering helped!

Lync on Linux: How to Access Lync Services from Linux Computers / How to Access Skype for Business and Teams Services on Linux Computers
Yes, this is two posts. The second is a follow-up on the same topic…accessing Skype for Business/Teams services on a Linux device. If you use an Android device, you’re in the best shape possible. A few more options do exist, in varying stages of usability.

Some of these date back as far as 2014. It’s rather heartening to see older posts still helping users!

Where the Blog Is As Of Now – Some Post Updating, Planning Out a Strong Year

I’ve gone through and made updates to each of these posts. A little additional content, including information from reader comments or emails, etc. New readers will get the most benefit…but if you read one of these posts in the past, it wouldn’t hurt to give it another look!

Refresher on Skype for Business

Ahhh, refreshing.
Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash.

To give you a peek into my 2019 plans, here are some post titles on the roster:

  • Pricing for Skype for Business and Teams: 2019 Version
  • How the Mediation Server Fits into Skype for Business
  • The Path to Deploying Skype for Business Server 2019 (Series)
  • The ChatOps War: The Battles Raging
  • How to Preserve Unified Messaging

Have a topic you want to see covered? Leave it in a comment below, or drop me a DM on Twitter at @PlanetMagpieIT!

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmail