Lync Steps Aside for Skype for Business

Last November, Microsoft revealed that it would be rebranding the next generation of its Lync products and services to Skype for Business in order to align it with its popular consumer-oriented messaging solution. That change starts this week with the launch of a Skype for Business client preview, and it will continue in April and beyond as Microsoft releases and then continues to update the other pieces of the Skype for Business stack as well.

“This is an important moment,” Giovanni Mezgec, the general manager for the Skype for Business team told me during a recent briefing. “We’ve been working on getting to this new platform, and it’s finally happening. But there’s more to do, and we will make Skype for Business even more a central part of the Microsoft vision.”

Combining the best of Skype with the best of Lync obviously makes sense conceptually, and Microsoft is quick to point out the benefits of using the “familiar” Skype UIs on its business products. But the synergy goes deeper than surface-level changes, with the ability to communicate between the services and products.

And there is a big Skype audience out there. Microsoft says it now sees 50 billion minutes of Skype traffic every month—which it says is one third of the world’s long distance traffic—and over 50 percent that is over video. On the business side, over 100 million people use Lync to communicate, and the product has a 79 percent penetration with U.S. enterprises.

So here’s how Skype for Business happens.

This week, Microsoft has made available a Skype for Business client preview. Anyone can download it, but you need an Office 365 business subscription to use it. The client features a new, Skype-like user experience, the ability to place and manage (but not receive) land-line calls (though only with the on-premises version of Skype for Business Server), integration with the Skype (consumer) directory, a call monitor window, and more. (You can also get the Skype for Business client preview as part of the Office 2016 preview for IT pros and developers.)

In April, Microsoft will deliver the final versions of the Skype for Business client (and presumably mobile clients as well), the on-premises Skype for Business Server, and Skype for Business Online, which is an update to Office 365. The exact rollout schedule on Office 365 will depend on your environment’s configuration.

Beyond April, however, Microsoft has plans to keep Skype for Business updated. And these plans are perhaps the most interesting.

First, Microsoft will be adding the enterprise voice capabilities that are currently available only on-premises to Office 365 (Skype for Business Online) in preview form in the US first. This will help bring Office 365 up to the capabilities of the on-premises Skype for Business Server over time.

Next, Microsoft is working with network providers from around the world to enable optional direct connections to Office 365 Skype for Business customers through Azure ExpressRoute for Office 365. This will enable enterprises to ensure the quality of service they need to perform all telephony activities over the Internet, Microsoft says.

And finally, the software giant is also working with hardware partners like Polycom to deliver new solutions specifically designed for Skype for Business. The first, the Polycom RoundTable 100, is a “video solution for huddle rooms” that is designed for small to medium sized business and will ship this spring and cost approximately $1000.