‘Intelligent Communications’ on Tap for Microsoft Teams Next Quarter
Following on its plan to merge Skype for Business into Teams, Microsoft said it will add enterprise “intelligent communications” capabilities to its chatbot collaboration tool next quarter. The forthcoming wave of capabilities will bring the Microsoft Teams interface to desk phones; voice-activated control of conferences; new meeting-service and automation capabilities; and telephony and cloud PBX direct-call routing features to the back end of the platform.
Microsoft fleshed out its Teams road map at last week’s Enterprise Connect conference in Orlando, one of the voice and video communications industry’s largest annual gatherings of professionals and partners. It was the same venue as last year, where the company officially released Microsoft Teams, just three months after launching it, and a year after failing (or abandoning) an effort to reportedly acquire Slack, the early mover in the chatbot-for-business space in early 2016.
Marking the anniversary of its release, Microsoft claimed 200,000 organizations now use Teams in 181 different markets, including enterprise rollouts at companies including Cerner, General Electric, General Motors, J. Walter Thompson, Macy’s, Maersk, McAfee, Technicolor and others. Launched as the pillar its chatbot-based virtual agent and group collaboration platform, Microsoft sees Teams as one of the main interfaces to the Office 365 communications experience.
At Microsoft’s annual Ignite conference for IT pros back in September, the company announced that it was moving the voice communications, chat and conferencing functions in the Office 365 edition of Skype for Business to Teams. The plan over time is for Teams to replace the Skype for Business client in Office 365. Skype for Business will remain the client in the on-premises server edition. A preview of Skype for Business Server is expected to appear later this year and Microsoft has said it will provide mainstream support for it for at least five years after its release.
Intelligent Communications via the Microsoft Graph
In addition to offering phone control and integration with users’ apps and data, Microsoft is embedding its Cortana voice-based virtual assistant into Teams. The company emphasized that bringing the intelligence of the Microsoft Graph to features such as call delegation, voice-activated call and video conferencing control via Cortana, and creating meeting transcriptions will greatly improve the productivity of groups and organizations.
Bob Davis, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Office 365 engineering, last week showcased how Teams, tied to the Microsoft Graph, is how the company is bringing together what it calls its new Intelligent Communications platform. Today’s meetings and conference calls are disconnected experiences from one meeting to the next, along with the notes, knowledge and action items that often tend to fall through the cracks and aren’t easily shared or acted upon, according to Davis.
“Intelligent communications treat our interactions more like a life cycle, so they can be easily recalled and shared,” Davis said in a keynote address. “It minimizes context switching and gives us a more connected, consistent experience across the multiple tools we use to communicate and collaborate. Communications is not just for talking; it’s for getting stuff done. So we expect next-gen tools to give us the insights that help us take action.”
Microsoft’s notion of intelligent communications also anticipates peoples’ needs and helps manage the flood of information and requests users constantly receive.
“Our tools will prompt us to share a file, schedule a meeting or even flag content we should follow up on,” he added. “During a meeting, our tools will break down language barriers, eliminate distractions and even write up the meeting notes.”
Despite the omnipresence of Microsoft Teams last week, it was in the crosshairs of key rivals (many who playing the role of coop partners as well) – notably Cisco and Slack – but also a mounting challenge from Amazon, which shared the limelight with its latest plan to bring Alexa for Business and Chime into the enterprise communications picture.
Enterprise Call Features
Among the new enterprise calling features offered in Skype for Business in Office 365 that will appear in Teams next quarter are call delegation; federation with other Skype for Business online or on-premises domains; and consultative call transfer, which uses chat to let a user consult with a potential call recipient before handing off the call.
Toward the end of next quarter, Microsoft will also bring direct call routing, an alternative to the calling-plans options the company now offers with Skype for Business in Office 365. Direct call routing will let customers link their existing Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) trunk lines to Microsoft Teams from existing telecom providers. Customers, or partners on their behalf, will be able to configure Session Border Controllers (SBCs) supported by Microsoft partners, which they’ll connect to Microsoft Teams.
Microsoft said initially it will support SBCs from AudioCodes, Ribbon Communications and ThinkTel — and will announce others later this month. Customers will still need the Cloud Connector Edition (CCE) required with Skype for Business today, but those who use supported SBCs will be able to pair the CCE to it and then to the Teams back end to migrate users from Skype for Business Online. The company said it will publish more migration guidance, but it will be welcome to partners looking to provide better and less expensive routing options.
But unlike Skype for Business, the Teams client will use proprietary protocols rather than SIP.
“I asked them, ‘Why would you do this?’ They said, ‘Well, that’s the way of innovation,’” Brent Kelly, president and principal analyst at KelCor, shared during a session at Enterprise Connect.
Software and service providers – and customers – might push back on that move, said Dean Pipes, chief innovation architect at TetraVX, a Microsoft partner.
“It’s actually consumer Skype core – it’s not Skype for Business core – but I think they’re going to get pressure from their channels and software providers,” Pipes said. “I think they’re going to have to change their stance on that because that is going to create a clear divide going forward, which I don’t think they can afford.”
Tiffany Wentzel Wissner, senior director of Microsoft’s Unified Communications business, said users of older gear can use SIP gateways, but she doesn’t believe the new proprietary connection will be an issue.
“We think customers will really love the capabilities that full Team application and the ability to have that consistent experience across devices,” she said in an interview. “That’s something customers are really excited about, and it certainly brings out the opportunity to bring out a richer experience on those devices.”
Crestron, Polycom, Logitech, Lenovo, AudioCodes, Yealink and Plantronics are among those phone and video-conferencing system suppliers that demonstrated new devices with the Teams interface at Enterprise Connect. BlueJeans, Pexip and Polycom said they will provide meeting-room bridging services.