What is Skype for Business?


The future is not quite as some imagined it would be 30 years ago. We don’t have flying cars, technologies like teleportation and time travel are still the stuff of science fiction, and despite serious advances in IT tech, some governments are still about as inefficient as a two-stroke engine powering a one-ton vehicle up a 60-degree incline.

But today’s present is still pretty good in some respects. Communication in 2016, for example, is as simple as can be – people have more options today than at any point in human history thanks to a mishmash of old-fashioned landline telephones, smartphones and internet-connected computers and smart television sets. We’re able to talk to people on the other side of the world and feel as if we’re standing in the same room as them, and as a result, distance is no longer a deterrent to effective communication.

Exactly because of how fast the telecoms and IT industries have expanded in the last 20 years, it’s not uncommon for businesses across the world to still be using an expensive mix of old and new communications technologies. PABX systems, for example, are still in widespread use in South Africa according to a 2015 Gartner report, despite the fact that all you need to talk these days is an internet connection and a smartphone or computer.

The rise of IM

This is thanks largely to the rise of internet-based instant messaging apps which let people talk to one another using a combination of text-based messages and voice calling options. The late 90s saw a boom in instant messaging applications that included the likes of ICQ, Powwow, MSN Messenger and others, and that evolution continued well into the 2000s.

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Skype enjoyed tremendous success during that boom time, attracting millions of users across the globe with its mix of text and voice-based options. It even went so far as to allow people to make calls to landlines and cell phones; people could buy “Skype Minutes” and use them to call phones around the world at a fraction of the cost of calls through traditional providers.

Intelligent Acquisition

Naturally, its success drew the attention of Microsoft, which acquired Skype back in 2010 and turned its attention to working Skype’s underlying technologies into its own products. With Microsoft’s concentrated focus on Office 365 and the aggressive expansion of its cloud technologies, it was inevitable that we’d someday see Skype making an appearance in a major Microsoft software suite.

That “day” is 2016

Recently, Microsoft took the wraps off of a Skype-based technology that has the potential to revolutionise business comms called Skype for Business. It integrates closely with Office 365 and allows people to talk, collaborate and annotate documents created in the latest versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote and Access right from within the applications themselves and not through a separate program.

Microsoft has vastly expanded Skype’s conferencing capabilities as well. Not only can up to 100 people join in on a virtual conference call, but people can be called on their cell phones from within the session, and join in on the group conversation from their mobile phones as if they’re having a regular phone call.

Chuck out your PABX

Skype for Business also brings with it the option for businesses to chuck out their existing PABXes, by introducing a “virtual PABX” that lives in the cloud. It’s a new service called “Cloud PBX & Modern Voice” and it’s powered by Microsoft’s massive Azure cloud server network; it effectively takes over from your physical PABX and routes all calls made from IP telephones, PCs, laptops and mobile phones through to their destination via the internet.

There’s an app for that

And when your staff are away from their desks, they can still use Skype for Business to make calls with their smartphones that use compressed data instead of expensive minutes. The Skype for Business app enables all of the functionality of the desktop/notebook application, including setting distinctive ringtones for specific numbers and contacts.

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How much?

All you need is your own work network connected to the internet however you please and an Office 365 E5 Enterprise subscription, and voila, no more need for a physical PABX system. At the time of writing, that subscription will cost you $35 per month, per user, on an annual commitment basis.

While that sounds like a lot, especially as it converts to around R533 per employee per month, that’s all you need to pay for access to all of Office 2016’s productivity software and the ability to make calls. Over and above that, those calls don’t cost you anything but the internet data they use, so if your staff make a lot of calls, the cost savings over time could be significant.

Try before you buy

Microsoft offers a 30-day free trial that you can make use of before making your final decision about Skype for Business, so give it a go – you really have nothing to lose, You could, however, quite possibly lower your operating costs, and that’s pretty important in these trying economic times.

 

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