Microsoft Teams is nothing new and Skype for Business or is it Skype? Understanding the message

At first glance you may be thinking that this post is going to be a scathing review of Microsoft technology. Well sadly for you, its not. The title is simply to grab your attention and at least make you read up to about here…. right?!?

In all seriousness, this is a contentious topic of which I am going to place my ten pence worth down on now. A lot has happened this Autumn (or fall for my American cousins). We have seen the introduction of Microsoft Teams and the announcements around Skype meetings, Skype Meeting Broadcasts and new Skype clients for the Apple family.

Those eagle eyed followers will notice that the last sentence lacked the words “for Business”. That’s not because I am lazy. In fact, I am disappointed because it means that most of my blog posts are going to be about 200 words less from now on! No, the reason is that Microsoft have been dropping the “for business” when delivering marketing messages around the Skype for Business (one last time). This has left a lot of us and our customers confused on what Microsoft are trying to convey with this.

First off, this is not a mistake, or short handedness from Microsoft personnel because they too are lazy and don’t want to write “for Business” 200 times a day. No everything Microsoft writes and speaks about in the public space is carefully choreographed and approved by their marketing department. So the drop of “for business” is not a mistake, but intentional. Why?

This is where Microsoft Teams comes in. Teams is a game changer for Office 365 and how we look and use applications we have loved for so many years. Over the past two to three weeks there has been a lot of hype around how Teams is compete with Slack (and that infamous open letter), and the questioning of whether there is room left for Skype for Business that the true message of what Teams is pioneering has become lost.

This is where I say Teams is nothing new and it really isn’t. Teams has been in Office 365 for months, if not years, you used it everyday you just didn’t know it. What Teams is, is the next generation of the wheel, a slightly different tread to the tyre that gives better grip on the road, than the last model.

Fundamentally teams is nothing more than the core Office 365 collaboration platforms converging. We have had Office 365 Groups for almost a year, and these have always been the replacement for pChat in the cloud. You create a group, add members and you start group collaboration in the form of email style messages, share files, co author documents, create connectors to other applications to suck in data into the group. You did all this in Outlook on the Web.

We have had Skype for Business in Office 365 since the early days (Lync Online) providing Instant Messaging, Presence, P2P audio and video and Web Conferencing. The ability to conduct real time collaboration with anyone at the click of a button anywhere in the world on any device. We have had that for years, and we did all this in the Skype for Business client.

We have had SharePoint Online for co authoring and company document storage. We have accessed this via a web browser to edit, download and distribute documents within company and externally. SharePoint gave us OneDrive for Business which is our personal document storage cloud which we accessed via the OneDrive for Business application.

We have OneNote where we can store all our important personal and internal notes and we can even share these OneNotes within our department or company to collectively work on using OneNote in Office 2016.

We have had all this for years. So Teams is nothing new, we just used it in a different, inefficient way.

But what is new is the way that the Microsoft Teams application delivers all these experiences. Teams delivers these in such a way that it makes all these historic applications and cloud services work in a completely different context. It combines all the power of Office 365 and delivers it to the user in a structured way that end users can associate with group chat based workspaces such as Slack.

This is the fundamental to the next generation of Office 365. Microsoft know they have an awesome cloud productivity platform that is very elastic, but to enable users to extract the true power of the Office 365 core the perception and way in which it is consumed must be changed, and people need to be shown the light.

What Teams is, is the pioneering first step to the new Office 365. Microsoft have moved away from the siloed application feature sets such as Exchange for e-mail, Skype for Business for RTC, SharePoint for document sharing and started to introduce another layer between these applications and the end user. This layer allows them to develop new applications and methods of productivity that will unleash the full potential of Office 365 to the end user. Instead of developing solutions specifically around SharePoint or Skype for Business, Microsoft now look at these core applications as workloads.

This is where it gets interesting. By looking at the likes of Exchange, Skype for Business, SharePoint etc. as workloads, they can be leveraged in many different ways to provide the best way to be productive in a given scenario. Whether that be group collaboration, or peer to peer, by relying on the old method of you must use Outlook for email and Skype for Business for Instant Messaging is too restrictive for modern day collaboration.

End users take and adopt on average three common applications on a day to day basis to conduct their work and communication. Any more than this they start to become disgruntled. So often they will use Outlook and send emails of one or two sentences to colleagues as a poor way of Instant Messaging, just because they cannot be bothered to learn a new application that does it better. This problem introduces inefficiency for both employees and the employer.

So by Microsoft looking at their Office 365 suite as a set of workloads that can be leveraged, they are able to create new super apps that are empowered with the workloads, so that communication and productivity can be efficiently extracted from everyone in any scenario, and Microsoft Teams is the first of these super apps that targets specifically the project team space.

Yes Teams can be used for day to day Instant Messaging, P2P AV and meetings in much the same way as Skype for Business can, but its fundamental use case is that group collaboration experience. So what if users find using the Teams client for non group collaboration communication? If they find it easier to use than Skype for Business, then that’s their choice. The important thing here to remember is that they are using all the tools you have invested in for them to communicate and collaborate in a way they feel is comfortable for them. At the end of the day, they are getting the job done more efficiently and you are getting your return on investment as an employer.

But how has Skype for Business suddenly become Skype in some cases? This started way back in Enterprise Connect if I am honest when the name on the room system was shown as Skype Meeting Room and more prevalent at Ignite, only to increase in recent months. Well in order for Microsoft to look at Skype for Business as a workload requires some significant remodelling of the Skype for Business core.

When significantly changing a cloud core solution in a manner such as this, the most efficient and least disruptive for all is to build an entirely new solution that users can migrate to when ready for release. This allows for development and BAU to coexist without beating each other up. And I bet Microsoft have been up to this for a while..

It is common knowledge that Skype consumer and Skype for Business share similar code for the AV workloads, we have SILK in both environments. Skype for Business has been getting closer and closer to consumer core code in recent months especially when you look at the Skype for Mac client. When you look at the URLs required for Teams, we don’t see xxx.online.lync.com as the public entry point but xxx.skype.net instead.

This points to one thing, there is a new workload core that is being leveraged for Teams and Meetings based on heritage consumer code. Even Skype consumer is leveraging with the new open meetings being released recently. Now consumer and enterprise won’t be sharing the same front end servers, so communications won’t be mixed in with consumer, but they are leveraging a common AV back end workload to conduct similar experiences for both consumer and enterprise customers. At the moment Skype for Business meetings are still hosted on legacy Skype for Business Online. But I dare bet that the reason that Microsoft are able to conduct regionally hosted meetings is down to the new core, and since it resembles what we have known as Skype consumer, lets just call it Skype Meetings.. right?

Does it matter that Skype meetings has been born out of consumer heritage? Not really. The consumer space is a brilliant way to test the future. Think of Skype consumer as the Red Bull F1 team. Red Bull are pioneers in precision engineering, pushing the boundaries of what is possible and science fiction. Testing new parts, making them reliable and winning at the same time (well not recently, but my point is about to be made). Once these parts become reliable, they are no longer cutting edge, therefore Red Bull passes them down to their sister team Toro Rosso while they go in seek of the next new tech that’s going to make them winners. Toro Rosso is that consistent team that is there to provide a steady platform to train new drivers. They use tried and tested parts that work. Skype for Business is Torro Rosso. It uses reliable Skype consumer parts in order to deliver consistent communication experiences to enterprise users. So by adopting the Skype consumer core for business workloads is a genius move from Microsoft.

Do we really care about the “for Business” anymore? At most it serves as a differentiator between consumer and business, but really to the end user they don’t really care, all they want to do is perform their job in the most effective way possible. In fact most people concerned by this are generally technical people like myself. It is a change in concept to what we have traditionally known. The boundary between enterprise and consumer has always been clear, but now it seems to blur and we feel threatened by it.

In reality consumer and enterprise boundary is still clear when you understand what Microsoft are trying to do. We will never use Skype consumer as an enterprise product, but the enterprise product will be very similar in terms of look, feel and code which we will see more like “Skype Professional” than Lync or Skype for Business in time to come. For Microsoft its a more consistent platform to develop on. They don’t need to maintain two separate cores, which means they can concentrate on rapid development.

Why doesn’t Microsoft just use the Skype consumer PSTN core for business? I don’t have the answer to this, but can surmise that is probably down to regulations and the fact that consumer is not secure for enterprise communication. Businesses, certainly large juggernauts would not even consider a solution built on consumer infrastructure, so there is a real need to keep these separate. The question is where is that line drawn? and this seems to be at code level.

We will see more super apps like Teams come out of Redmond in the coming years, targeting specific use cases, but carry common workloads such as IM, Presence, P2P AV, meetings and more. To the end user, these will be scenario specific apps rather than single use applications. It is likely that at some point in the future, the Skype for Business client, maybe even Outlook will disappear in today’s form and be introduced as workloads within these super apps. Variety is a good thing!

However, the important point here is that this is all end user perception, targeted to increase adoption and consumption. At the end of the day we will still need the Exchange and Skype for Business admin to control the back end of these workloads for each customer. Think of it as your users no longer having to visit three or four shops to do their weekly shopping, and now just need to go to one supermarket for all their cloud workloads.

When you look at it from this perspective, the messaging makes perfect sense. There will be some that will disagree, and that’s fine. This is just my perception on how I see the future and what Microsoft is trying to achieve. I see this approach as a positive move, the more integrated the Skype workloads become into different scenarios, the more likely customers will want to migrate from legacy PBX systems into the cloud which keeps me in a job a bit longer! But the main objective of this is enabling you to extract the true value out of subscriptions like E5 that you previously found more challenging.

All this is just my thoughts on how I see things going. None of this material carries any formal weight to it from Microsoft, it’s just me putting it out there to see what others think.

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