Microsoft’s Ignite business and IT conference started today in Orlando, and, as we’ve come to expect, the big emphasis was on the continued evolution of Microsoft’s cloud, machine learning, and software-as-a-service offerings.
The company is shaking up its communications offerings for Office 365 users, as it continues to try to figure out how to make the best use of its various assets. Those with long memories will remember that Microsoft had Messenger (or Windows Messenger, or MSN Messenger) for its mass-market consumer messaging platform, with instant messaging, Internet-based voice and video chat, and Office Communications Server—later renamed Lync—for its enterprise messaging platform. It offered a similar set of capabilities to Messenger but over private servers, with greater administrative controls. It also offered connectivity to the regular phone network.
Microsoft then bought Skype. On the consumer side, it folded the Messenger and Skype networks together and then ditched the Messenger branding, unifying under the Skype name. On the corporate side, Lync was renamed (again) to Skype for Business. Skype for Business picked up the ability to bridge to the Skype network. Microsoft also rebuilt the Skype communications infrastructure, moving away from Skype’s old peer-to-peer system to a more conventional client/server system, with the company arguing that this made better sense for enabling features such as synchronized message history across devices, and the abundance of occasionally connected devices like smartphones.
The company then built a new communications service, the Slack-like Teams. Teams offers an IRC-like approach to instant messaging and corporate chat, overlapping in part with Skype for Business, and Redmond has integrated voice and video messaging into Teams using Skype’s technology.
Announced today, Microsoft is going to move all communications features into the Teams client and will be making the Teams client the core communications client for Office 365 users, replacing the current use of the Skype for Business client. With Teams showing strong momentum and already subsuming many communications features, there’s some logic to this change. This is going to see Teams picking up a range of new communications capabilities, such as connectivity to phone networks, with all the attendant features like voicemail, conference calling, and call transfers.
Skype for Business isn’t going away, however; a new Skype for Business Server will be released in the second half of 2018 for on-premises deployments.
Office 365 has been Microsoft’s major software-as-a-service offering, but earlier this year it was joined by Microsoft 365: a combination subscription including Office 365, Windows 10 Enterprise, and Enterprise Mobility + Security (which itself is a combination of Intune remote management, Advanced Threat Analytics, Azure Information Protection, and Azure Active Directory). Joining two Enterprise subscriptions is Microsoft 365 Education, which adds Minecraft: Education Edition to the bundle and Microsoft 365 F1. This subscription is for “firstline workers;” the workers that interact directly with customers or on the shop floor, a group that Microsoft claims has been largely left behind by the “digital transformation.”
All versions of Microsoft 365 are picking up some extended search capabilities. Underpinning this is integration of data from the Microsoft Graph—the various connections between people, documents, and projects—and from LinkedIn. The Graph will be used for a new Bing for Business private preview, which will integrate the (private) Graph data with (public) Web data. LinkedIn data will be used in the profile/contact cards within Office 365.
Microsoft’s third 365-branded software subscription is Dynamics 365. That’s having some machine learning, or artificial intelligence as it’s now branded, infused. The company has built intelligent agents to help with customer care and conversion management tools that are all using machine learning. HP, Macy’s, and Microsoft itself have been using these new tools and claim improved customer satisfaction and the ability to handle more customer requests in less time.