Almost there: Skype for Business inches forward

A convoluted user interface and crippled mobile features limit the conferencing tools' utility, but there's now enough to get started

Almost there: Skype for Business inches forward
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I remember vividly a couple years ago trying to participate in a product scoping meeting from my MacBook over Lync, the old name for Microsoft’s Skype for Business conferencing service in Office 365. The connection kept dropping, and linking up in the first place on anything but a Windows PC was problematic. We switched to another service and everything was fine.

A year later, we did some testing of the revised Lync/Skype for Business (both names were in use, depending on your platform). The clients outside of Windows were severely limited, and both the audio and video were problematic. So we stayed with that third-party service. Once again, we found Microsoft’s Office 365 collaboration tools couldn’t do the job, especially in a multiplatform environment such as ours (in some groups, Macs account for two-thirds of the computers).

In late 2016, Microsoft finally released new Skype for Business clients (no more Lync versions) for MacOS, iOS, and Android, and it updated the Windows one. We’d love to use Skype for Business instead of a third-party service, of course: We’re already paying for Skype for Business in our enterprise Office 365 plan, and the fact that it ties into our Exchange calendars, directories, and authentication is a real plus. If only it worked! Well, we thought, maybe this time.

The good news is, in initial testing, Skype for Business works, and not only in Windows.

Skype for Business screen share IDG

Skype for Business now works across all major platforms. Here, a Windows user is sharing a screen to an iPad user during a meeting.

But both its pro-Windows and antimobile biases remain: iOS and Android users can join meetings and make calls, but not initiate meetings or share screens. And only Windows users can make a direct PowerPoint presentation (rather than do a screen share while PowerPoint is running), despite the fact that PowerPoint is available for MacOS, iOS, and Android too.

Meetings scheduled in an Exchange client will show up in the Skype for Business calendar, but you can’t join that meeting by clicking it from Skype for Business unless you create an online meeting in desktop Outlook or enable Skype for the meeting in mobile Outlook. Basically, you need to use Outlook to schedule meetings that others can join via a click or tap; that’s not a terrible imposition, except that Outlook for MacOS, iOS, and Android remain incomplete in their functionality, and many users legitimately will favor Apple’s or Samsung’s clients instead.

And the Skype for Business user interface is simply horrible. Figuring out how to initiate a call is unintuitive and inconsistent across platforms, as is finding contacts and adding people to a call or meeting. (Basically, you need to search by name or email address, except for contacts you’ve added to your favorites in Skype for Business—itself an unclear process—and those in Outlook Groups, an Office 365 service that works very poorly, when it’s even available, outside Windows.)

Skype for Business on Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android IDG

Skype for Business clients vary wildly in functionality and user interface. Does Microsoft really expect users to figure all this out? Top left: Windows; top right: MacOS; bottom: iPad (Android tablet looks the same).

Understanding the difference between a meeting and a call is a real puzzle, but the difference matters because screens can only be shared when in a meeting, not via direct call. That’s not a distinction any other conferencing tool I’ve tried makes.

Chat sessions aren’t replicated across devices, so if you have a conversation in Skype for Business on your iPad, you won’t see that conversation in Skype for Business on your PC. But there is one place to see all your conversations: In the Conversations folder in your Exchange email account, which you can see from any email client, not only Outlook. That’s better than nothing, but a poor approach nonetheless. Chat systems like Skype and HipChat know better, keeping conversations available across all your devices because, of course, users access more than one device.

It’s clear that Skype for Business can’t yet do the conferencing job of GoToMeeting, WebEx, or Join.me. Despite its limitations, it can serve at least as an internal PBX, letting employees reach out to each other for audio or video calls on any device they happen to have, wherever they happen to be—without having scheduled a meeting and dial-in number in advance. It works fine if your meetings, and calls are led by a cadre of trained users—answering a call or joining a meeting is easy from any of the Skype for Business clients; it’s the setup and initiation that’s hard.

By the way, Skype for Business lets IT set up traditional phone access for a monthly fee for each host, similar to other services, so you can call or have meetings with people who don’t have Skype for Business. Unless IT disables this capability, you can also call or meet people outside your organization using their email address if they have Skype for Business running via Office 365 or on-premises.

For many of us, having that internal PBX capability is a godsend. I’ll take myself as an example: I get tons of junk and sales calls every day, so I long ago stopped answering my desk phone. I use it only to call out for scheduled meetings. Skype for Business could replace that PBX for internal calls. And I work in multiple locations, so I don’t have a single number where people can reliably reach me, but I don’t want to give out my cell number to everyone. Skype for Business will ring all my computers, smartphone, and tablets, so I can take a call wherever I am—even in an airport lobby or on a bus.

Messaging tools like Skype—which I regard highly—also let you initiate calls to others via their devices (on all major platforms), so Skype for Business has competition in that “internal PBX” context, not merely in the more traditional online conferencing market. But Skype for Business brings several advantages, or it will once its clients have been upgraded and its UI reworked for usability:

  • It’s part of Office 365, so if you have an enterprise subscription you’re already paying for it.
  • It’s integrated with Outlook, so it more easily fits in typical business collaboration workflows. (I hope once Microsoft finishes its client-neutral API effort for Exchange that it will also integrate into Apple Mail, Apple Calendar, Samsung Email, Samsung Calendar, Google Gmail, and Google Calendar, too.)
  • It’s integrated with Active Directory, so users don’t need to worry about keeping contact lists up to date and IT doesn’t need to worry about unauthorized people joining meetings.

Skype for Business is on the cusp of being a professional-class business communications tool. It shows that Microsoft is serious about making its collaboration apps as good as its productivity apps. It’s not quite there, but close enough for at least that “internal PBX” usage.

This story, "Almost there: Skype for Business inches forward" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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