Tag: Conferencing

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!

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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?

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3 RealPresence Trio Updates Beef Up its “Communications Hub” Power

“Alexa, start the Skype Meeting.”

Sounds like an easy way to kick off a meeting, doesn’t it? If you’re using a RealPresence Trio, you have this functionality available.

Poly (formerly Polycom) has made several updates to their Trio conference systems since introduction. Not only have they helped with stability and audio/video clarity, they’d added third-party integrations. Lots of them.

Trio 8800 Skype for Business

Image provided by Newsroom.poly.com.

In this post we’re talking about three of the latest—three that enhance a Skype Meeting’s usability. Alexa, AirPlay, and Zoom.

Alexa for Business Integration: “Alexa, please schedule a meeting for 10:30…”

The latest RealPresence Trio 8800 firmware includes an integration for Amazon’s Alexa for Business. You know what that does—adds voice commands into the Trio. To use it for business though, you’ll have to connect Alexa for Business to a “conferencing provider” of your choice: Cisco WebEx, BlueJeans…or Skype for Business.

The setup for connect a conferencing provider only takes a few steps. Not unlike a Skype for Business voice route. Here’s how: Managing Conferencing Providers – Alexa for Business Guide

Once you’ve set up Alexa, you can take advantage of everything voice-related you’d do with an Echo:

  • Make & receive phone calls
  • Join meetings
  • Start or end meetings
  • Book the conference room
  • Bonus – Access private Alexa Skills. Make your own company-specific Skills!

(I have not tried asking Alexa for random quotations or a joke. If you do, let us know what she says!)

Full Alexa integration does take a few steps. Amazon has documented those steps for us: Use Polycom Trio with Alexa for Business – Alexa for Business Guide

Business Case for Alexa Integration: I see this as a primary convenience improvement. Too often we’ve seen customers start their Skype Meetings like this:

  1. Team members enter conference room.
  2. Someone taps a button on the Trio.
  3. Loud dial tone as it connects, because someone forgot to turn down the volume after the last meeting.
  4. Then a conversation somewhat like this happens:
    “Did it connect?”
    “I don’t know, I don’t hear anything.”
    “Are they muted?”
    “I think it failed. I’ll try again.”
    [After 2-3 other attempts taking up to 10 minutes…]
    “Hello?”
    “Oh! You can hear us now?”
    “Yes, can you hear us okay?”
    “Yes. All right, we can get started.”

Let’s avoid all that wasted time, shall we? Just ask Alexa to start your next meeting.

AirPlay Integration: Extra Screen Sharing Power

If you’re an Apple fan, you already know AirPlay. Good news for you—the Trio 8800 now lets you use it for AirPlay too!

This integration does one thing and one thing only: Screen mirroring. Once the Trio’s configured to activate its AirPlay integration, anyone in the meeting can share content on-the-fly.

We tested this one on-site too, using a MacBook Pro (it also works with iPhones and iPads). Worked flawlessly. Interestingly, I found that AirPlay content supersedes any Skype for Business shared content (a PowerPoint file, for instance). When the person sharing via AirPlay stops, the Skype for Business shared content reappears.

Screen Sharing AirPlay Trio

You could screen share from either device in this photo.
Photo by Headway on Unsplash.

You configure AirPlay on the Trio the same way you do Alexa for Business: Adding a features.cfg file to the device’s Trio Web Interface. Parameters listed in the documentation below.

Screen Mirroring with AirPlay Certified Devices – Polycom Documentation Library

Business Case for AirPlay Integration: Participation boost! This integration makes it easy for attendees to share content off their phones or tablets. People don’t have to lug their computers into the meeting. Just a couple taps and you’re the one presenting.

Zoom Integration: Control a “Zoom Room” with Your Trio

Last year, we had a customer request a Trio 8800. We asked if they planned to use it with Skype for Business, as they were on Office 365 already. They said no. They’d just started using Zoom…and they wanted to use the Trio with it.

This took a little configuration finesse on our end. Thankfully, you don’t have to go through the same process. Zoom and Poly partnered to integrate the Zoom Rooms software into the Trio.

A “Zoom Room” is their version of a fully media-enabled conference room. It does require a computer, but otherwise gives the same functionality as a Skype for Business-enabled conference room: audio/video conferencing, screen sharing, and a simple control system.

The integration allows you to use a Trio as a controller in a Zoom Room. In other words, you’d use the Trio much as you would in a Skype for Business setup. Start/end meetings, use its speakers, & control the screen sharing.

NOTE: If you bought a Trio 8800 separately from the Zoom Rooms hardware, you will need to provision it. See the setup notes posted below for the steps.

Setting Up the Polycom Trio as a Zoom Rooms Controller – Zoom Help Center

Business Case for Zoom Integration: Options. Prefer Zoom over Skype for Business? You can still use a Trio. Configuration’s a much easier process now than it was when we first tried it, too!

Conference Trio 8800

Pssst, Alexa, order gift bags for everyone!
Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash.

Beef Up Your Trio into a Convenient Communications Hub

Important note: Remember the Trio posts I did a while back (Review Part 1, Review Part 2)?

We did these new integration tests on the very same Trio. It’s still in our conference room, subjected to all sorts of firmware mangling. (It’s all in the name of testing, honest.) Which means if these integrations work on our battle-worn Trio 8800, they will work on your latest-model Trio 8800 too.

How do you use your RealPresence Trio? Leave a comment, or message me to share.

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How the Video Interop Server Fits into Skype for Business

Entry #6 into the “How it Fits” series is…the Video Interop Server, or VIS!

Of all the Server Roles, I have the least experience with this one. We’ve only done one install of it, for a customer with an older Cisco conferencing setup. It did the job, and made the customer happy.

Newly-introduced in Skype for Business Server 2015, VIS made a bit of a splash on debut. Because it leveraged existing video conferencing hardware, you didn’t need to spend extra on new hardware when deploying Skype for Business. You could reuse what’s already in place. We all love cost-saving!

This post, like the other “How it Fits” series, will give an overarching take on the Video Interop Server’s function and use case. It has not markedly changed since introduction, and ships with both Skype for Business Server 2015 and 2019. You may never need to use one…but if you do, you’ll be glad it’s there!

The Video Interop Server’s Primary Role

The VIS acts as an intermediary for Skype for Business and legacy Video Teleconferencing Systems (VTCs). These are older conferencing room systems businesses have used for years. Cisco, Polycom, and several other brands make VTCs. It appears Microsoft meant the VIS to work primarily with Cisco TelePresence VTCs.

Video Interop Server Diagram

There it is!
Photo courtesy of Microsoft Docs.

By creating the server, Microsoft helped many companies with older conferencing hardware extend its useful life. Remember all the money you sank into that conferencing room’s video setup? Big screen, high-quality (for the time) cameras, expensive phone/speaker equipment, wiring? With a VIS, you don’t have to scrap all of that for new hardware. The VIS allows those video systems to connect to & join Skype Meetings.

You can also use VIS for peer-to-peer calls on the same hardware, with some limitations.

VIS is primarily designed to interoperate with the Cisco Unified Communications Manager (CUCM) and its connecting endpoints. I’ve seen mentions of people connecting it to non-Cisco conferencing systems, but I don’t have a concrete example. (Do you? Please comment with the details!)

Main Components of the VIS

1. Video Converter. A VIS is almost single-purpose: it converts video streams between the formats used by Skype for Business and legacy VTCs.

Let me explain a little more about how this works. Skype for Business uses the H.264 video codec. However, it also maintains support for the RTVideo codec for interoperability. This allows legacy conferencing systems to transmit their video data into the system. But the Skype4B servers may not fully understand the legacy video transmissions.

Which is why we have Video Interop. It performs the conversion & translation functions necessary to make everyone see & talk to one another.

As you can imagine, this takes a little more bandwidth. When implementing Video Interop, it’s wise to make sure you have a comfortable amount of bandwidth available. Otherwise the VIS will bump streams down to a lower resolution, causing poor video quality & even attendee drops.

2. SIP Trunk. Not necessarily a Server Role, but the VIS needs a video SIP trunk to communicate between itself and a legacy VTC.

 

Skype for Business VIS

The guy on the far left: “Thanks to our VIS, everybody in Dallas sees this too. Now what is Mark holding again…?”
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash.

Other Servers a VIS Communicates With

Front End Server. VIS talks directly to the Front End Server. Please note, you cannot collocate VIS with a Front End Server; it must have its own server/pool.

Edge Server. Since VIS must venture outside of the internal network for some third-party VTCs, it needs to associate with an Edge Server/Edge Pool. This is set up within Topology Builder.

How a Video Interop Server Works in a Hybrid Environment

You implement the VIS as a standalone server, in on-prem topologies. As such, this is the only way it will work in a hybrid deployment. Microsoft may have reasoned that since larger companies are more likely to use (and want to keep) Cisco legacy VTCs, they’re opting for on-prem deployments anyway.

The VIS in Skype for Business Server 2019 & Teams

Skype for Business Server 2019 does include Video Interop Server. I expect that future Cumulative Updates (CUs) for Server 2019 will expand its interoperability to more legacy video platforms.

Teams however is a different story. Since it’s all cloud-based, and Microsoft built VIS as an on-prem Server Role only, we don’t have such an option for Teams users. Nor will we. Those companies with legacy VTCs still on-site are out of luck.

Or are they? You do have one option…a third-party Cloud Video Interop service. An add-on service that performs the same function as VIS, made by a Microsoft Partner like Polycom or BlueJeans. If you invested thousands into a now-older Cisco conferencing setup, and are looking at Teams, go with this option.

VIS Extends the Life of Your Video Conferencing Hardware

Personally, creating an entire Server Role to handle one use case seemed like overkill to me. At first.

However, since then I’ve come to understand the reasoning behind VIS. Given how bandwidth-intensive video is—not to mention how demanding older teleconferencing systems can be!—it does make sense to include a gateway devoted to it. In so doing you also make said hardware last longer, saving on costs. Which makes Management happy!

For additional documentation on Video Interop Server, consult Plan for Video Interop Server in Skype for Business Server.

Which legacy conferencing platform would you like to see VIS support next?

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How to Access Skype for Business and Teams Services on Linux Computers

Want to access Skype for Business or Teams on Linux? You’re not alone. I wrote a post back in 2014 titled, “Lync on Linux: How to Access Lync Services on Linux Computers.” It remains one of the most-read posts on this blog today, almost 4 years later.

I decided to revisit the topic after seeing that in my analytics. What kind of Linux-based tools did we get (if any) since then? I’ll include Teams in this post too, since that’s where Skype for Business is (mostly) heading. Let’s see what the Linux landscape holds, shall we?

The Big Question: Did Microsoft Make a Skype for Business for Linux? Will They?

First, the bad news: We still don’t have a Linux version of the Skype for Business app.
Installing Skype for Business on Linux – Microsoft Community

A check on the Office 365 roadmap confirms zero items related to Linux. People definitely want it though, according to this SkypeFeedback.com thread:
Linux Desktop Client for Skype for Business – SkypeFeedback.com

Given the dearth of results, I don’t think we’ll ever get a full-version Skype for Business Linux client. But that doesn’t mean we close the door. Other options do exist, in varying categories of usability.

What kind of tools are out there? Desktop clients do exist. Web apps as well, in case those don’t work or have too few features. Let’s not forget the Android platform as well…more people use Android than iOS worldwide.

Linux-Based Skype for Business Tools, and How Usable They Are

1. Skype for Business Web App
Can you use the ‘official’ Skype for Business Web App on a Linux computer? Not…really.

The Web App installs a browser plugin to work. Said plugin, unfortunately, only works on Windows. You can install a Windows VM and use the Web App. But at that point, you might as well install the desktop client! As such, this is a ‘just barely’ option.

Skype for Business Web App Under Linux – Reddit

Skype for Business Video

“What do you mean you can’t turn on video? They must see my cuteness!”
Photo by Pete Bellis on Unsplash

2. Tel.Red Sky Linux App
Tel.Red has built & maintained a Linux client for Skype for Business for several years. They call it Sky Linux. There’s a free version with call limits. Full versions costs $49/year per user…quite reasonable.

I put this in the “not bad” category. It DOES work, in most cases. It’s missing some meetings-related and call-related features though, such as delegates and video-based screen sharing.

3. Pidgin+SIPE Plugin
This solution lands in the “OK, a bit clunky” category. As I mentioned in the 2014 article, the Pidgin IM client has a Linux version.

It does not natively support Skype for Business communications. For that, you’ll need the SIPE plugin.

With the two working in tandem, you can connect to Skype for Business servers and chat. One caveat though…the SIPE plugin hasn’t received an update since February of last year. Which means it may not like working with the newest sharing & meeting features. Your mileage may vary, depending on configuration.

Still, it’s a good effort, and I want to commend the SIPE developers for their work. Add-ons like these can fuel huge growth in software capabilities—something very worth our support!

Linux Skype for Business

The Code of Linux grows…
Photo by Sai Kiran Anagani on Unsplash

4. Android App
This goes in the “Best Option” category. You’ll get the most features and the easiest install/configuration.

Yes, Skype for Business does have an Android app! Skype for Business – Google Play

The app does have limitations of course…you can’t present a program from Android, do Consultative Transfer, or use meeting tools like the whiteboard. (In fairness, the iOS app has most of the same limitations.)

Feature Comparison between Skype for Business Desktop Client and Mobile Devices – MS Docs

Its latest version seems plagued by login troubles though. Frustrating, but the app still beats other options for native Linux functionality.

What About Teams on Linux? Much More Accessible

When it comes to Linux, Microsoft Teams is another matter. Because Teams runs in the Azure cloud, you can get to it in a browser on Linux. You may not have full feature access though; our good friend Tom Arbuthnot reports that Teams doesn’t have audio/video support on Linux. You may get audio if you use Chrome, according to Tom’s comments.

Microsoft says a native Linux client for Teams is “on the backlog.” Which explains why it doesn’t show on the O365 roadmap either.

UPDATE 10-17-18: Aaaand Microsoft pulled the plug on a Linux client for Teams. Sorry folks. Wish they hadn’t done that. But they did.

UPDATE 11-1-18: Microsoft updated their plans to put a Linux Teams client back ‘on the backlog.’ So far, that’s all they’ve done. No more progress reports since.

However, the Teams Android app is going strong. It just got an upgrade in fact: Microsoft Teams for Android Updated with New Call-Related Features – MS Power User

While I’m glad Teams works on Linux, it appears the Android app carries even more functionality. So your best bet for Teams on Linux is to use that!

Teams Made Further Linux Progress Than Skype for Business

In the 2014 post I joked that more Skype-related development would come…mostly from the Linux community. Now, I wasn’t wrong! But with Teams eventually supplanting Skype for Business, and Android apps getting more focus, Microsoft’s definitely paying SOME attention to the Linux side of things.

Linux Lemons

Linux gets some lemons. But it’s good at making lemonade!
Photo by Ernest Porzi on Unsplash

That said, we have a Windows desktop client for Skype for Business and Teams. We have iOS and Android apps for Skype for Business and Teams. We do not have a native Linux client for Skype for Business or Teams. Will we get one? Maybe for Teams. For Skype for Business? Probably not.

What’s your Linux/Skype for Business/Teams situation?

UPDATE 3: A commenter pointed out a Github project: Teams for Linux (Unofficial). Essentially, a wrapper for the Teams Web app. It has several known issues, but does provide a desktop alternative for Linux users. Thanks developers!

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The Skype for Business Quagmire Creeping Up on Enterprises

Skype for Business Server has one new version coming. After that, enterprises could get stuck between an economic rock & a financial hard place.

Skype for Business Server 2019 is coming. However, given all the pushes toward O365/Teams, it’s not unreasonable to presume that 2019 will be the last on-prem version of Skype for Business.

This presents a major problem for larger businesses. They will either have to move to Teams, or investigate another on-prem Unified Communications provider.

What’s wrong with moving to Teams? Nothing! …except possibly cost. When you scale up to enterprise-level user bases, a cloud service like Office 365 could really strain the budget. What if your business has 1,000 users? 5,000? 10,000+? Even if you’re paying a few dollars per user per month, the total monthly cost for all those O365 subscription licenses adds up fast!

Let’s look at the whole conundrum enterprises using Skype for Business will have to face. It’s a quiet, creeping financial snarl…and it’s coming in just a few years.

Does Teams Cost Less than Skype for Business Server? No, and Here’s Why.

First, let’s talk numbers. Microsoft touts Office 365 and Teams as its “Intelligent Communications” option for businesses, and wants everyone to move to the O365 platform. Okay, fine. How does that work out cost-wise for enterprises?

Let’s say we have three businesses—one with 1,000 users, one with 5,000 users, and one with 10,000 users. How much would these businesses spend if they all used Teams (and Office 365)?

I’ll use two subscription levels here: E1 and E5. Why these? Because we’re finding that our O365 customers, even smaller ones, need one of these two levels the most. They need the backend services E1-E5 gives them. If they already have Office licenses, they go to E1. If not, E5.

I am using the Office 365 ROI Calculator for the monthly cost per user. It gives slight discounts on the regular costs.

E1 Monthly Costs*:

  • $6.59 x 1,000 users = $6,590/month x 12 = $79,080/year
  • $6.38 x 5,000 users = $31,900/month x 12 = $382,800/year
  • $6.18 x 10,000 users = $61,800/month x 12 = $741,600/year

E5 Monthly Costs*:

  • $28.82 x 1,000 users = $28,820/month x 12 = $345,840/year
  • $27.93 x 5,000 users = $139,650/month x 12 = $1,675,800/year
  • $27.04 x 10,000 users = $270,400/month x 12 = $3,244,800/year

(*Monthly values do not include initial setup fees or hardware maintenance.)

These numbers quickly move from ‘doable’ to ‘ridiculous.’ Dropping 3 million a year for Office 365?

Let’s compare these numbers to the cost of an on-prem Skype for Business Server. I’ll use numbers from a previous post on this topic:

Skype for Business Server with 1,000 Users:

  • 1 Front End Server License (MSRP) – $3,646.00
  • 1,000 Standard User CALs – $36.00 each, or $36,000 total
  • 1,000 Enterprise User CALs (Conferencing & desktop sharing) – $124.00 each, or $124,000 total
  • 1,000 Plus User CALs (Voice & call management) – $124.00 each, or $124,000 total

Total: $287,646

Exchange Server (for voicemail):

  • 1 Exchange Server (Enterprise) License – $4,051
  • 1,000 Standard User CALs (MS Open License) – $5.00 each, or $5,000 total
  • 1,000 Enterprise User CALs (MS Open License) – $55.00 each, or $55,000 total

Total: $64,051

Grand Total for 1,000 users: $351,697
(This is a three-year cost, and assumes no discounts.)

 

Skype for Business License Cost

You’ll need a few stacks of these…

Photo by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash

So if an enterprise with 1,000 users opted for an on-prem Skype for Business Server, it would cost roughly the same as 1 year of Office 365 E5. Fair enough. But the Skype for Business Server has a three-year usability period…

Assuming a 5% maintenance cost (about $17,500) for Years 2 and 3, they would end up paying $386,697 over those three years. If they went with E5 and didn’t have any maintenance costs at all, they’d end up paying $1,037,520.

At enterprise-level, Teams actually costs more than its predecessor!

The Quagmire: Skype for Business is Going Away

This is a serious cost discrepancy. Big enough to push larger businesses away from Office 365, back to on-prem.

Now, some enterprises would have no problem paying these amounts. They also get additional value from the related O365 services (see Addendum below). If so, great, more power to them! However, Accounting usually likes to save money. These numbers may cause them to balk.

What will the enterprise do if they want to save money? At these user counts, an on-prem server actually saves money. Sticking with Skype for Business Server makes economic and organizational sense.

But what about after Skype for Business Server 2019? Microsoft has not clarified if another version is on the roadmap. Given their merging all Skype for Business tools into Teams, it does not look likely. If there’s no on-prem version coming after 2019, then enterprises are stuck! They’ll have three choices:

  1. Move to Teams anyway,
  2. Keep their Skype for Business Server running as long as possible, and/or
  3. Switch to another on-prem Unified Communications provider.

On-Prem Skype for Business Alternatives for Future Succession

I cannot accurately speculate the Unified Communications landscape in 2020 and beyond. All I can do is look at what’s available now, and prognosticate their future offerings.

 

On-Prem Unified Communications Choices

2019 is coming fast.
Photo by Eric Rothermel on Unsplash.

If all you need is video conferencing and the cloud is OK, you should still have alternatives like Join.me, Appear.in, Workplace, or Slack. I don’t think any of these will go anywhere.

If you’ll need an on-prem, full-capability Skype for Business Server successor, I expect the following will still be around:

I’m NOT saying these solutions are better than Skype for Business Server (or Office 365 for that matter). Just presenting alternatives that have staying power.

Enterprises: The Time to Start Thinking about your On-Prem Skype for Business is Now

Microsoft’s push away from on-prem to the cloud has merits, in many respects. That said, just because a larger business has the budget to spend on lots of cloud services, doesn’t mean it’s the best use of the money. Office 365 may just not be the choice for them.

Unfortunately that presents a serious financial quagmire. It’s not here yet…but it’s coming.

(By the way, we will gladly support on-prem Skype for Business Servers into 2020. And beyond!)

Enterprise IT employees, what’s your Unified Communications outlook for the future?


ADDENDUM 5-17-18: As Mark pointed out in the comments, I didn’t factor in other Office 365 services as a pricing justification. This is true, and a good point for him to make. Office 365 does come with more than Teams – Exchange, SharePoint, OneDrive, etc. It also reduces the need for on-prem hardware and staff.

I don’t want to minimize the value here. O365 can be a huge help for businesses who need full-fledged IT infrastructures, and may not have the budget to build them on-prem. That said, I’m still not sure enterprises would gain financially from an Office 365 move as opposed to on-prem. At least as far as Skype for Business is concerned.

(I may do a follow-up post to address this part of the situation in more detail. Stay subscribed!)


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How the Reverse Proxy Fits into Skype for Business

You asked for more “How It Fits” posts last year, and I’m happy to oblige. Today we’re discussing…the Reverse Proxy server!

Reverse Proxy is also part of the Skype for Business perimeter network, like Edge Server. The two act in concert, in fact, which made it an easy second choice for this series.

Now, one important thing: Reverse Proxy is NOT an official Skype for Business Server Role. You’ll need another device/appliance to serve as your Reverse Proxy. Fortunately, many good options exist; Microsoft has provided a list of reverse proxy servers to help. We’ve tried the MS Web Application Proxy and F5’s BIG-IP. Both worked very well for our purposes.

The Reverse Proxy’s Primary Role

A Reverse Proxy server facilitates external user access to some Skype4B tools. Like the Edge Server, it aids users outside the internal network: mobile users, federated users (e.g. partners, vendors), and customers.

How? It works by publishing some Skype for Business services to the public Internet, and regulating access to them from outside the perimeter network. I’ve listed which services in the next section.

Main Functions of a Reverse Proxy Server

Here’s the list of Reverse Proxy functions in a Skype for Business Server deployment. You’ll see that they all deal with external users, be they permanently remote or a standard user out of the office.

  • Connect to meetings or dial-in conferences using simple URLs (e.g., “meet.yourdomain.com”).
  • Download meeting content.
  • Expand distribution groups.
  • Get user-based certificates for client certificate based authentication. In other words, authorize some mobile clients to access the Skype for Business Server.
  • Download files from the Address Book Server, or to submit queries to the Address Book Web Query service.
  • Obtain updates to client and device software.
  • Allows mobile devices to automatically discover the Front End Servers offering mobility services (e.g., “lyncdiscover.yourdomain.com”).
  • Enables push notifications from Office 365 to mobile devices.

Some IT admins would argue that a Reverse Proxy’s final function is to frustrate them! That’s because it handles switching between ports on the same IP address, when traffic moves from the public Internet to the internal network. Here’s an example image.

Reverse Proxy Diagram

Image courtesy of Perficient Blogs.

You see the Reverse Proxy translating from TCP port 80 facing external, to TCP port 8080 facing internal. Same IP, different ports. Helps with security…but it’s a pain on a certification exam!

Other Servers Reverse Proxy Communicates With

Front End Server/Front End Pool. The Reverse Proxy communicates primarily with your Front End Server. It is publishing some of the Front End’s services out to the public Internet, and funneling in requests from external users to use those services.

Director/Director Pool. If your Skype for Business topology has a Director, the Reverse Proxy will publish its external Web services (e.g. Autodiscover) as well.

mobile user photo

Someone got locked out while outside the network!
Photo by GirlieMac

Edge Server. The Reverse Proxy also sits in the perimeter network, between the external and internal DMZs. It and the Edge Server have distinct roles, but the two must act in concert.

Without the Edge Server authenticating some external users, the Reverse Proxy could accidentally provide a Skype4B mobile service to the wrong user (or not at all!).

Load Balancer. Depending on where you use load balancing, the Reverse Proxy may need to talk to yours. Otherwise it could deprive some external users of the access they need. I’ll address this in the Load Balancers post.

Firewall. Since the Reverse Proxy uses two sets of ports matched to IP addresses, your firewall needs to play nice with it. Otherwise you’ll have some very locked-out (and upset) users outside the office!

Is One Reverse Proxy Server Enough?

In most cases, one Reverse Proxy per Skype for Business topology is enough. I checked with a co-worker regarding one hybrid deployment we did early last year. This customer has satellite offices and job site trailers…their external users easily outnumber internal users about 4 to 1. Yet they only have one Reverse Proxy, and report no bandwidth issues or delays.

That said, I can think of two situations where two or more Reverse Proxies may make sense:

  1. A high-availability global on-prem deployment.
  2. More than one perimeter network exists in your organization.

Reverse Proxy is What Makes Skype Meetings Happen Anywhere

Since the Reverse Proxy is not a Skype4B Server Role, I’m not sure what will happen to it with the Teams merger. It could continue to provide the same external publishing & regulation function as it does now. Teams would certainly need such services for guest users and remote workers. I’ll keep it in mind as we hear more about Teams.

Additional Reverse Proxy Resources:
Reverse Proxy 101 – Perficient Blogs
Edge Server System Requirements in Skype for Business Server 2015 – TechNet
Plan for Mobility for Skype for Business Server 2015 – TechNet

In the next “How it Fits” post I’ll address Load Balancers. What Skype for Business/Teams tool should I do after that? Please comment your choice!

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Device Reviews: Sennheiser Presence UC ML, SP 20 ML, SD Pro 1

As I said the other day, Sennheiser kindly sent us some headsets for testing. Not just the MB 660 though…no, we got several more!

More than I could review on my own. So I passed the others to co-workers. I asked them to use the headsets for a few weeks, and then give me their impressions.

Here are the results. Since I have three devices under review in one post, I’ll compress each review a little bit.

Presence UC ML: The Road Warrior’s Headset

SPECS: The Presence UC ML is a single-ear Bluetooth headset for mobile use. It’s the “pack of gum” type that sits right on your ear. It comes with a USB dongle for plugging into a computer. The ML version is rated for Skype for Business, though the entire Presence line will cooperate with mobile phones.

The Presence UC ML features multi-device connectivity, SpeakFocus (your listener hears your voice instead of traffic sounds), and up to 10 hours call time on 1 charge.

Sennheiser Presence UC ML

USER’S EXPERIENCE: I gave this to Mike, our Creative Director. Mike tried it on his Macbook, but it didn’t want to work. He could receive calls with it, but his voice never rose above a whisper. I don’t know if this was due to his using a Mac, or a configuration issue. (When I can get him to bring it back, I’ll try the dongle out on my Windows laptop.)

Using it with his phone however was a whole other story.

“Using this [the Presence UC ML headset] was superior to my phone,” he said. “Between holding the phone to my ear and using the headset, the headset was clearer in every respect. Plus I didn’t have any pressure on my ear. I actually forgot I was wearing it!”

Mike rides a motorcycle to the office. I’d called him one day and chatted for a moment about a project. Moments later he walked in the door. He’d put the Presence on inside his helmet and talked to me while riding. I didn’t even know he’d done that until he told me. His voice came through so clearly—while inside a motorcycle helmet speeding down the freeway—that I thought he was still at home!

BEST FOR: The Presence UC ML is very much an on-the-go headset. It’s compact, light, and keeps up good clear sound for hours. Road Warriors, we have your headset.

PRESENCE UC ML – Sennheiser

SP 20 ML: The Speakerphone/Hockey Puck

SPECS: The SP 20 ML is a Skype for Business speakerphone. Like the Jabra SPEAK 410, it’s a large speaker that sits on the desk/conference table. Except it does much more.

Sennheiser SP 20 ML

The SP 20 contains its own battery, which it charges via the USB cable. It has both a USB connector and a 3.5 connector, which allows it to plug into a computer, tablet, even your phone. The SP 20 has call control and volume buttons on its top surface. Skype for Business will auto-detect the device with no configuration necessary.

USER’S EXPERIENCE: This one I tested myself. I used it for some basic one-on-one calls, three- and four-person conference calls, and even played some music for a while. (Okay, until my co-workers started throwing crumpled-up paper balls at me.)

The SP 20’s sound clarity is stellar. Not just for hearing other people, but for my voice reaching them as well. We had a conference call with a colleague in Illinois, and he sounded so clear I almost forgot he wasn’t in the same room!

I credit the sound quality to the fact that the SP 20 uses more of its surface area for speaker/mic coverage. You see this in the photo above. Not only is the top surface working as a speaker/microphone, so is the underside of the lip.

That said, all this speaker surface does come with one warning: the SP 20 ML is VERY sharp at picking up sound. As such, turn it up to 100% at your own risk. We had a conference call where one of our callers kept leaning into their own speaker when talking. We could tell each time…because their voice got so loud that the sound hurt!

BEST FOR: Small office conferences. The SP 20 ML does one thing, and does it very well. I’d expect sound quality for such devices to improve over time. But they really pushed for clarity with this one.

SP 20 ML – Sennheiser

SD Pro 1: The Call Center Workhorse

SPECS: The SD Pro 1 is a wireless single-earpiece headset which connects to a cradle. It’s part of Sennheiser’s SD series. The SD Pro 1 has a noise-canceling microphone on a boom arm. The headset incorporates call controls directly on it; you can answer or end a call, mute, and adjust volume with a tap.

The SD Pro’s battery gives you 8 hours of talk time (in wideband mode; 12 in narrowband mode) per charge. To recharge, you just put it back on the cradle.

Please Note: There are TWO versions of the SD Pro 1. One is rated ML, one is not. We had the one NOT rated ML.

Sennheiser SD Pro 1 Side View

The wireless range on the SD series headsets ranges from 180-590 feet. As I understand, our tests only took the SD Pro 1 from one part of the office to another, representing about 100 feet. Still, no reported static or dropped calls.

USER’S EXPERIENCE: I gave this headset to Hannah, our Office Assistant. She manages most of our incoming calls, as well as customer follow-up and scheduling.

Perhaps fittingly, Hannah gave me her impressions in a phone call. I’ll record them here in question/answer format.

  • Sennheiser SD Pro 1 Front View“How would you rate the headset in terms of comfort?”
    Answer: 8/10. Sometimes it starts sliding off my head and I have to keep readjusting it. Could be I have a weird shaped head. But that’s okay, it’s pretty comfortable.
  • “When using the headset with Skype for Business, do callers sound as clear as a regular phone call, less clear, or clearer?”
    Answer: As clear as a regular phone call, definitely.
  • “If you use the headset with your phone via Bluetooth, do callers sound as clear as holding a phone to your ear, less clear, or clearer? What about another Bluetooth headset – worse or better?”
    Answer: I did try this, and it does sound as clear as holding the phone to my ear. I have used another Bluetooth headset before—this one is pretty much the same.
  • “How easy are the headset’s controls to learn & use?”
    Answer: They are pretty easy to learn. I always forget which direction to push the switch to raise the volume though!
  • “What would you say to someone considering this model of headset?”
    Answer: It is a great headset, with easy controls, but you have to be aware of how it will interact with your phone systems. I have to click certain buttons in a certain order to be able to answer a call in the way that I prefer to have it answered.
  • “What drawbacks have you come across while using the headset?”
    Answer: If I don’t answer the call with the correct button order, the call does not display on my monitor correctly. This gets irritating, because then I have to transfer calls on the phone [my desk phone] instead of doing it via Skype on my computer. Slows down the transfer process a bit. That is probably the only issue I have.

BEST FOR: Call center and front office workers. The SD Pro 1 does well with just about any phone system, but I’d recommend you use it with non-Skype for Business systems (Cisco, Shoretel, etc.). If you’re on Skype for Business, the SD Pro 1 ML should do the trick.

Why do I recommend this headset for call center workers? Because of the cradle. The SD series headsets all use the same cradle. Which means it’s easy to charge any SD headset on any cradle. Even someone else’s! (Though you might want to ask first.)

SD PRO 1 – Sennheiser

The Right Headset Depends on You (But these are all good choices!)

Now that the communication platforms available to businesses are growing like crazy, headsets like these become essential. You don’t even need a desk phone anymore…just the right software on your computer, and a nice headset.

I’d feel comfortable recommending each of these to a customer. Which one would depend on the customer’s individual needs. Do they focus on conferences? The SP 20 ML. Are they always on the go? The Presence UC ML. Just need a general headset for a bunch of office workers? The SD Pro 1.

You can find all of these headsets over at Headsets.com.

Do you have one of these Sennheiser headsets? Please comment on your experience!

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Do You Really Need PSTN Conferencing?

“I have a question. Do we really need to add PSTN Conferencing on?”

This question came from a prospective customer, during our planning stage for a Skype for Business/Office 365 rollout.

I was not present at the meeting; my co-worker told me about it later. When I heard the question, it made me think a moment. DID you really need PSTN Conferencing?

Let’s explore the idea, shall we? Who knows, it might figure into your own Skype for Business planning!

What PSTN Conferencing Does

First, a little about the PSTN Conferencing feature.

The Skype Meeting tool allows people to join a meeting space using their computers, or an app on their phones. Then they can share voice, video, a desktop, a whiteboard, etc.

But what if you don’t have an app or computer available? Or you’re on the road with no Wi-Fi? How do you join the meeting?

PSTN Conferencing lets you dial into the meeting with your phone. Just call a specific number and you’re in the meeting. The PSTN Conferencing feature enables you to create the dial-in number (or numbers) within Skype for Business.

How PSTN Conferencing Works in Skype for Business Online

In Office 365’s Skype for Business Online, PSTN Conferencing is an add-on. You have to buy it from within Office 365 Admin on a per-user licensing basis.

Set up dial-in or PSTN conferencing for Skype for Business – Office Support

The add-on costs $4/month per user (unless you’re on Office 365 E5). That’s $48/year per user. If you have 100 users who need PSTN Conferencing, you’re looking at almost $5,000 per year, every year.

Now, not every user needs a PSTN Conferencing license. Only those who plan to schedule Skype Meetings or lead them will need one. Regular attendees don’t.

How PSTN Conferencing Works in Skype for Business Server

In Skype for Business Server, the feature is actually called “Dial-In Conferencing.” You need two things to make it work: a Mediation Server and a PSTN Gateway.

Enterprise Voice Calls

Hello? Is the dial plan on?

The Mediation Server is required for Enterprise Voice, and a PSTN Gateway translates signals between Enterprise Voice and a PSTN or PBX. If you want to call out, you’d need both of these anyway!

You also need to configure a dial plan, access number, and conferencing region. Once Skype for Business is deployed, that’s relatively simple to add in. The full requirements are listed in TechNet: Plan for dial-in conferencing in Skype for Business Server 2015 – TechNet.

(You can also use a third-party solution for PSTN Conferencing, if your Skype4B Server deployment isn’t set up like this. Communiqué makes one, for instance.)

We’ve had Dial-In Conferencing installed on our internal Skype for Business Server (and Lync Server before that) since deployment. I’d never thought about it as anything other than “just a part of the system.”

But as I think about it, I realize I’ve never actually used the dial-in number. Even on my phone, I’d use the app. Does anyone else?

I asked around the office. Only one person had ever used the dial-in number, twice while driving/stuck in traffic. Aside from that, we didn’t actually need Dial-In Conferencing!

How Many People Use PSTN Conferencing to Dial In?

As mentioned above, PSTN Conferencing’s core functionality is to provide a number for calling into conferences/Skype Meetings.

Here’s the question: Who will you have calling into your conferences?

Think about the purposes behind your conferences.

  1. Team status updates?
  2. Project discussions?
  3. Sales/New customer meetings?
  4. Management roundtables?

I could go on, but one thing’s clear – many purposes exist for having a conference. But do all of them require external dial-in access? No.

In fact, only #3 above would benefit from dial-in access. And that’s only if…

  1. You’re meeting with a non-local customer who doesn’t have Internet access.
  2. A regular phone call won’t suffice, and again, no Internet access available.
  3. Nobody has Skype for Business, or Skype, installed on their computers/phones.
  4. The Skype for Business Web App isn’t working.

PSTN Conferencing May Age Out of Use, in Time

Of course you’ll want to have phone numbers where customers can reach you. That’s what Enterprise Voice (and Cloud PBX) are for.

But a conferencing dial-in number suddenly seems like less of a priority. Besides, if an external user or customer did need to join your meeting, you still have the Skype for Business Web App.

I guess it comes down to Phone vs. App. What do you prefer – calling phone numbers, or using an app? It’s only my observation, but more and more people are leaning toward App.

Which makes things like PSTN Conferencing an add-on of the past.

When deploying Skype for Business, examine your user base. Consider what kinds of Skype Meetings you’ll hold, and who will attend. It may be that you can rely on apps—and not need the time/cost of installing PSTN Conferencing.

Do you still use PSTN Conferencing? What are your thoughts? Please comment or email.

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Skype for Business vs. Workplace by Facebook

Time to continue our “VS.” series! This time, let’s do a comparison of Workplace by Facebook to Skype for Business.

(Previous post: Skype for Business vs. Google Hangouts)

I was introduced to Workplace during research for The Security Behind 6 Business Chat Apps (Including Skype for Business). Here’s an excerpt from that post, talking about Workplace:

The Workplace app does almost exactly the same things as Microsoft Teams and Slack: chat rooms, groups, external users, video, etc. It’s just made by the Facebook team. Pricing is cheaper than Slack, which makes sense if Workplace wants to grab users from other platforms.

Some good (and bad) points:

  • Workplace accounts are different from Facebook accounts. That’s good; separating work and play means better privacy overall.
  • Workplace has a Trust Center posted, like Office 365: Workplace Trust Principles. Good for you guys!
  • Workplace debuts with a handicap though—Facebook’s dubious privacy practices. It’s a separate system, but Workplace does run off Facebook’s servers. Some businesses will shy away on reputation alone (and I can’t honestly blame them).

I requested a trial. Curiously, I was prompted to select a time for a Live Demo, instead of a download link or registration page. Which gave me a nice overview of the platform before sending me a link to my new Workplace. After playing with it for a few days (and bugging my co-workers with random “Just testing!” calls), I think it’s time for my review.

So what kind of experience does Workplace give us? Is a “Facebook for Work” app what we need? What kind of pricing are we getting? Features? Let’s find out!

The Basics: Feature Sets

Skype for Business Workplace By FB
Instant Messaging Work Chat (Messenger on Steroids)
Voice Calls Voice Calls within Work Chat
Video Calls Video Calls within Work Chat
Conferences/Online Meetings Conferencing
Federation Multi-Company Groups
Presence Status  Presence Indicator
Response Groups Groups
Persistent Chat Work Chat
Runs On-Prem (Server)
or SaaS Option  (Office 365)
Runs as Cloud Service
with Mobile Apps

 

Workplace setup assistance

A Workplace post to help you with setup.

Before we get into the details on similarities & differences though, there’s an elephant in the (chat) room. Privacy.

The Privacy Question

Workplace does come from Facebook. And Facebook is famous for its, shall we say, cavalier attitude about user privacy.

You Should Go Check Facebook’s New Privacy Settings – WIRED (06-02-16)

The question is, does Workplace protect users’ privacy? As a business product, it does have a legal obligation. So far, I’ve seen no indication that it will gamble with user privacy. But given its creator, we must still wonder.

In the Workplace FAQs, we find several questions devoted to privacy and confidentiality. Like this one.

Who owns the information that employees create?
Like other cloud-based enterprise software, the employer does.

Pretty straightforward answer. Only time will tell what changes may appear in Workplace’s approach to privacy. As well as what the market believes about Workplace privacy.

The Similarities: Features, Familiar UI

In terms of features, both platforms are very similar. Workplace’s Work Chat mirrors Skype4B’s Instant Messaging. From there, you can add voice, video, or other people with a few clicks. Just like in Skype for Business.

I was able to test the calling function, but not video (think my cam’s broken). Calls in Workplace came through as clear as any Skype for Business call.

Familiarity is a big factor in both platforms. Workplace feels & acts almost identically to Facebook. Skype for Business feels & acts a lot like Skype (in some respects!). I must credit both Facebook and Microsoft on this. Familiarity is a big part of good user experience—it helps adoption, shortens the learning curve, and improves overall satisfaction.

Workplace by Facebook screen

Looks like Facebook. Is actually Workplace.

As you can see from the screenshot, Workplace’s interface is feed-based. Skype for Business’ interface is contact-based. So long as the user knows where to go for communications, the interface works. In this respect, Workplace has a leg up over other chat competitors, like Slack and HipChat.

The Differences: Pricing, On-Prem vs. Cloud, Apps

The biggest difference I see (at least right now) is that Workplace is cloud-only. No local deployment option exists. Not surprising, but for those who prefer deploying servers on-prem…Workplace is a no-go.

The pricing difference stems from this same disparity.

Workplace charges only by active users. Skype for Business Online does something similar through Office 365 user accounts. But Skype for Business Server does not. The server pricing is up-front, in the form of licenses and implementation costs.
Workplace just turns on and charges you for X users each month.

Their price point is lower than Microsoft’s Office 365. In fact, even considering Slack’s pricing, Workplace is the cheapest per month:

  • Office 365 Business plans run from $5/user/month to $12.50/user/month. The Enterprise plans run from $8/user/month to $35/user/month.
  • Slack charges $8/user/month for Standard, and $15/user/month for Plus.
  • Workplace starts at $3/user/month for the first 1,000 users ($2/user for the next 1,000, and $1/user after that).

Seems pretty obvious that Facebook wants to compete on price as well as features. Using such a low per-user pricing model is an attempt to leapfrog both Slack and Microsoft. Like its other platforms, the company may aim to grow Workplace at break-even (or even at a small loss) until it reaches juggernaut status. Then they can raise prices all they want.

It’s worked for them before; I must admit that. But only time will tell us if this pays off for Workplace’s adoption.

Finally, Workplace features third-party app integration. Facebook learned from its ecosystem of consumer apps & games, and built an API that will let developers build add-ons for Workplace too.

Apps & Permissions – Workplace Docs

You can do this with Skype for Business as well, to some degree. There are many third-party apps which extend the Skype for Business system. (We’ve reviewed a few here on the blog – search around!)

Microsoft even maintains a registry: Skype for Business Apps, though it is incomplete. In terms of third-party integration, Workplace has a bit of an edge here. Like Slack, it appears designed to work with other apps from the start.


Final Words: Workplace Has the Chops, But Will Businesses Bite?

Facebook is moving into an already-populated space, where competitors have had years to build up their audiences, and trying to take it over. Nothing inherently wrong with such a practice—disruption feeds innovation.

But I can’t help thinking Workplace will never get out from under Facebook’s privacy question. If there’s a data leak, or Workplace data “accidentally” shows up in Facebook ad deployments? Then Workplace is DOA…and thousands of businesses are in serious trouble.

A final note: Workplace is still the new kid on the block. I will revisit this topic again later, after the market’s had time to chew through Workplace more, and we see what kind of management path Facebook takes with it.

Which do you prefer using—Workplace by FB 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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