Microsoft beefs up Skype for Business within Office 365, focuses on supporting data-centric initiatives

Microsoft Corp. announced a series of product updates for businesses at Convergence EMEA 2015 in Barcelona, Spain last week, all around supporting its customers in digital transformation efforts.

As part of its efforts to enhance the communications features of Office 365, Microsoft has updated Skype for Business with services built into its productivity suite that it claims will be able to replace an organization’s legacy meeting and phones systems.

Replacing Lync, Skype for Business maintains its familiar user interface, but offers features aimed at organizations, including PSTN conferencing, which allows someone to dial into a meeting with a traditional phone. Skype Meeting Broadcast, meanwhile, allows an organization to produce large virtual meetings for up to as many as 10,000 attendees through any browser or any device.

 Skype for Business supports multiple participants through a browser.
Skype for Business supports multiple participants through a browser.

Being able to eliminate a traditional, separate PBX system is also now feasible, Microsoft claims, using its Cloud PBX, which allows companies to transition to the cloud with Office 365 as the central location to manage users for communication. Those customers can now also subscribe to Microsoft managed calling plans and phone numbers. That feature will initially be available in the United States with more markets to come.

While a big part of digital transformation is about migrating to the cloud, being able to compete in an emerging data economy will be based on how enterprises are able to use data, according to Microsoft International President Jean Philippe Courtois. Microsoft’s vision for data analytics and related areas, such as the Internet of Things and machine learning, focuses on helping enterprises get actionable insights. “There is a chasm in attitudes towards transformation between IT and business approaches in organizations,” he blogged at the beginning of Convergence. “It is vital business leaders understand the importance of transforming their organizations, and aligning their IT strategy to the broader business strategy.”

Like Skype for Business, new capabilities in CRM 2016 are integrated with Microsoft’s productivity tools, including Office 365, such as the CRM app for Outlook and access to contextual CRM documents across SharePoint, Office 365 Groups and OneDrive for Business. Improved mobility is also a focus in CRM 2016, with full offline mobile capabilities for phone and tablets, as well integration with Cortana.

Microsoft recently announced it acquired a Canadian company to further enhance Dynamic CRM, buying the product business of Saskatoon-based Adxstudio Inc., which had been focused on building out web-facing CRM for its customers based on Dynamic CRM.

CRM is an area where organizations have been comfortable turning to a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model, but Microsoft sees most business apps lagging behind,  stuck on corporate PCs and not optimized for mobile, hence the motivation behind Microsoft PowerApps.

PowerApps  is an enterprise service for employees, developers and IT professionals. According to Bill Staples, Microsoft’s corporate VP of application platforms, employees will be able to quickly create apps that work on any device using a Microsoft Office-like experience using a template and a visual designer that automates workflows.

They can also use built-in connections or ones developed by their own organization to connect PowerApps to Microsoft cloud services such as Office 365, OneDrive, and Dynamics CRM, as well as Dropbox and Salesforce. On-premises systems such as SharePoint, SQL Server, SAP, and Oracle databases are also supported.

For developers and IT professionals, PowerApps includes Azure App Service for employee-facing apps to deliver native web and mobile apps employees faster. It supports data security and privacy controls, data access can be managed and corporate policies maintained. PowerApps also allows them to build additional data connections and APIs to any existing business systems.

Staples said the lag getting business apps onto mobile devices can be attributed to a lack of skilled mobile developers; research firm Gartner predicts through 2017 that the market demand for mobile developments with outpace an internal IT organization’s capacity to deliver five-fold, he noted.

Even if the apps exist, it’s still difficult to get the apps out there, said Staples, as app distribution typically happens through app stores, or through mobile device management, governed by IT, and business data is growing so quickly and stored in many systems, he added, so it’s difficult to connect to and consume related data from within an app.

The concept of giving employees the ability to develop apps is not new. In June, Vancouver-based ScoopMAE launched its Scoop 4.0 Enterprise Mobility Platform that enables operations personnel to quickly build mobile apps for use by field workers so they can quickly collect data and bring it into a centralized cloud platform.

While ScoopMAE focuses on creating apps to gather information from the field, theEMPLOYEEapp, which launched last year, is designed to make it easy for non-IT and tech-savvy individuals to implement a mobile employee communications program. It recently introduced an API and the ability to integrate with Microsoft’s Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS) for user management and single sign on (SSO). Aimed at corporate and internal communications professionals, it facilitates distribution of corporate information residing within intranets to small screens such as smartphones and tablets.

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Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson is a Toronto-based freelance writer who has written thousands of words for print and pixel in publications across North America. His areas of interest and expertise include software, enterprise and networking technology, memory systems, green energy, sustainable transportation, and research and education. His articles have been published by EE Times, SolarEnergy.Net, Network Computing, InformationWeek, Computing Canada, Computer Dealer News, Toronto Business Times and the Ottawa Citizen, among others.

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