The ChatOps War: The Battle Rages

Three major powers clash over and over. Challengers appear on the horizon. The productivity of millions hangs in the balance. Welcome back to the ChatOps War.

The Current State of ChatOps

Messaging apps. Online chat. Collaboration tools. Call them what you will. ChatOps (as I’ll refer to them here) have exploded across the business world in only a few years.

As with every new frontier, there’s a sort of ‘Wild West’ period. A few businesses pop up early, grabbing much of the attention & pushing growth forward. Then upstarts appear to claim slices of the pie. Big names in related industries wade in to crush the upstarts, early-stagers gear up…and everyone fights for market share.

That’s where we are now. Fighting stage. The War is on.

ChatOps War
Some battles are more intense than others.
Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash.

Why take the time to examine it though? What’s the advantage in surveying the battle scenes? As long as people can use their preferred messaging app, everything’s fine…right?

While true, there are two reasons. One, not everyone can use the ChatOps platform they want to. More on that below.

Two, it takes time & effort to move a company onto any platform. Especially if they’re already on another platform! Migrations take time, cause user frustration, and drive up support costs (temporarily at least).

When you decide to move onto a ChatOps platform, you need to make sure it’s one that will:

  1. Stick around
  2. Do what you need it to
  3. Work well for your user base, AND
  4. Remain affordable.

Hence my reason for this post. Let’s see what’s happening in the ChatOps War.

Who’s On Top?

We have up-to-date information to start us off—a December 2018 survey conducted by Spiceworks. Love those guys.

Business Chat Apps in 2018: Top Players and Adoption Plans

The biggest move came from Microsoft Teams. It surged ahead in 2018, surpassing Slack to become the #2 collaboration tool in the business world. (Microsoft’s moves to place Teams front and center in O365 certainly contribute to Teams’ growth.)

Who’s #1? Skype for Business, of course. For now at least…its own cousin wants the crown.

Wrestling with Messaging App Choices
Watch out, he’s going for the nose! What would the ‘nose’ be in a messaging app?
Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash.

The Defeated

Workplace, Facebook’s entry into messaging apps, died out of the gate. It’s not a terrible chat offering, as I mentioned in my 2017 review. But it didn’t really hold its own against Slack or Skype for Business, and Facebook’s overall privacy problems kneecapped Workplace as well.

The Challengers Nipping at Heels

I became aware last year of several newer, standalone ChatOps services. I do plan more extensive reviews of the services later this year, but for now, let’s meet the ‘Challengers.’

TWISTTwist.com
This is a chat offering by the makers of Todoist, a popular to-do list app. You see this reflected in Twist’s structure: It’s somewhat like a group chat/email hybrid. Very similar to Teams in its Conversation-based structure. Twist’s makers tout its structure as superior to Slack, by using threaded conversations everywhere (thus making all communication easier to follow). It’s a subtle shift, but notable enough.

MATTERMOSTMatterMost.org
Mattermost acts a lot like Slack. With one MAJOR difference – it’s self-hosted. You run Mattermost on your own servers. It’s an on-prem chat platform!

The standard version is free, with a two-tier paid version that adds in Active Directory/LDAP integration, faster support, and several other useful tools. The Mattermost software runs on Linux, and has apps for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android…and of course Linux PCs.

Slack does have a Linux app, so this isn’t ‘Slack for Linux.’ It’s an open-source, on-prem alternative. Not quite as refined as Slack, but users report good experiences with it.

ZOOMZoom.us
Wait, Zoom? Don’t they just do video conferencing? Yes, and they do a pretty good job of it as I understand. But it turns out they have a messaging app bundled in too—Zoom Chat!

Zoom’s primary focus remains on conferencing, and rightfully so. The Chat app looks like Slack’s younger cousin. Useful, but meant as a supplement to the video tools. A good value-add.

———

These challengers for the most part have simpler feature sets and a nimbler approach to ChatOps. They’re definitely aiming for Teams/Slack’s heels as well. How much market share they win over will depend, I think, on two things:

  1. Which chat features/structures become the most popular among businesses
  2. Microsoft’s Teams expansion efforts
ChatOps Competitor
I will take your customers…and your treats!
Photo by Daniel Lincoln on Unsplash.

Skype4B’s Crown is Under Threat

At this point, Microsoft has forced Skype for Business almost completely out of the small business sector in favor of Teams. This will not get better. Skype4B will eventually lose its crown to Teams. We all knew this of course…but it’s here. It’s happening as you read this.

Enterprises still have the on-prem Skype for Business Server 2019 version, of course. I remain convinced that this will be the last on-prem version Microsoft will release though. By the time we’d roll around to a new server version—2021 or 2022—everyone using ChatOps will either be on Teams, Slack, or a challenger. They will all have full Enterprise Voice capability. Phones, video, and chat will all mesh together.

Now, let me give a prediction about Google Hangouts. You saw several ChatOps players in this post…but I’ll bet you noticed that Google Hangouts was not among them. That’s because I predict Google Hangouts won’t become a threat. Not to Skype for Business or to Teams.

The Spiceworks survey indicates that Google Hangouts use went up from 2016-2018…11% to 18% adoption rates, respectively. That’s because Google targets enterprise users with its Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet products. Moving away from smaller G-Suite customers and potentially alienating them. Thanks to challengers like Twist, Google can no longer make the ‘easier to use’ claim that kept them around.

I also think Google’s privacy concerns and business practices will scare off enterprises in next 2 years. The fact that Google split Hangouts in two, coupled with appealing value propositions from Teams, also throw some tacks on the road.

2019 Will Bring Winners and Losers in the ChatOps War

Now we know the state of the ChatOps War. But there’s plenty more to come!

2019 is a ‘Battle Year,’ where we’ll see promotion, feature adds/updates, rises and falls. I could easily see any of the following occur:

  • Microsoft shortens its Skype for Business sunset schedule (UPDATE: Microsoft announced that it will shut down Skype for Business Online on July 31, 2021.)
  • Google buys Slack (please don’t)
  • A challenger like Twist or Mattermost starts eating into Teams’ market share, due to their independent-of-Microsoft nature
  • Former HipChat engineers come out with something new & exciting
  • Workplace and/or Hangouts quietly dies

This is something on which I’ll keep as close an eye as I can. Directly—we’re fielding Teams requests in the office, and at least one customer uses Slack. All from businesses under 100 employees.

Next post I’ll go into choosing your own chat platform. If you’re looking at all these options and wondering what the best choice is for your business? The next post will help you make that determination. Check back soon!

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How the Mediation Server Fits into Skype for Business

Our fifth entry in the “How It Fits” series is…the Mediation Server!

Mediation is a central element within Skype for Business. It’s arguably the most versatile Server Role in the Skype for Business topology too. There’s almost no end to the number of configurations you can deploy for it…collocate, standalone, or pool. SIP trunk or PSTN gateway. Multiple gateways. Multiple trunks. Call routes and bypasses.

The one thing all of these configurations have in common…is listening. Mediation Server listens and translates. Routes and connects. If you use Skype for Business at all for voice, you’re talking through a Mediation Server.

This post, like the previous posts in my “How it Fits” series, will give an overarching take on the Mediation Server’s function and value. I took a more agnostic approach, since we now have two versions of Skype for Business Server to consider (2015 and 2019).

How does Mediation Server work in both of them? Any differences between versions? Let’s find out.

The Mediation Server’s Primary Role

Mediation servers translate signals between your Skype for Business’ Enterprise Voice infrastructure, and the gateway your topology uses to reach the PSTN: either a PSTN gateway, a SIP trunk, or even a PBX. “Mediating” your voice communications, basically.

Mediation Server Signal Processing
The signaling protocols Mediation Server handles. Photo courtesy of Microsoft Docs.

Because of this critical function, Mediation Server is a required Server Role. It also helps facilitate E911, Call Admission Control, and Media Bypass.

This is one of the Server Roles for whom hardware quality matters. The higher the server’s processing capacity & available RAM, the more calls a Mediation Server can handle.

Main Components of the Mediation Server

  1. Signal Translation: The reason you must have a Mediation Server for Enterprise Voice. Without signal translation, nobody could understand each other on the phone. You’d either sound like 80s-era robots, or brain-scrambled demons!
  2. Call Routing: The server coordinates with your gateway of choice to route calls where they need to go. Peer-to-peer inside the network, out to a branch site, or out to a customer three states away on their cellphone.
  3. Media Bypass: Not really a component, but a capability. Skype for Business admins can configure a call route to flow AROUND the Mediation Server! The call route would travel directly between a user’s device and a PSTN Gateway. Why do this? It can reduce lag without traversing the Mediation Server. Media bypass improves call quality by reducing latency, unnecessary translation, possibility of packet loss, and the number of potential points of failure.
  4. Call Admission Control (CAC): A bandwidth management tool. Based on available bandwidth, the Mediation Server determines the best use for existing calls. The idea is to automatically prevent poor call quality as often as possible.NOTE: Media Bypass and CAC are mutually exclusive. If one’s in use for a particular call, the other is not.
Digital Voice Traffic VoIP
Basically, Mediation Server helps you avoid the digital voice equivalent of this.
Photo by Jens Herrndorff on Unsplash

Other Servers a Mediation Server Communicates With

Front End. Of course, Mediation communicates with the Front End Servers all the time. It employs Front End’s database for call routing, and performs a similarly-central role in voice communications Site-wide.

PSTN Gateway / SIP Trunk / IP-PBX. These are the gateway mechanisms, or “peers” for bringing calls to & from Skype for Business. This is where your defined call routes meet the Mediation Server.

Load Balancers. I mentioned in the How the Load Balancer Fits post that load balancers must communicate with servers they’re balancing AND the servers sending them traffic. Since almost all voice traffic must go through the Mediation Server, they’ll talk with load balancers frequently.

(The peers performing call routing to/from Mediation Server also act as load balancers, particularly when you deploy a Mediation Pool.)

How a Mediation Server Works in a Hybrid Deployment

What does a Mediation Server do in a hybrid topology with Office 365?

Fundamentally the same thing. If you’re hybridizing an existing Skype for Business Server deployment, you’ll enable synchronization for Active Directory and change call routes. You’ll have to reflect such changes in your on-prem Mediation Server.

There are too many options to the hybridization process to cover in 1 post. Suffice to say, it all depends on your gateways/SIP trunks, and how much of Office 365’s calling services you use.

Should You Collocate with Front End, or Use a Separate Mediation Pool?

By default, Skype for Business wants to collocate a Mediation Server with the Front End Server. Which is fine for smaller topologies.

If you’re using a SIP trunk though, I recommend the standalone approach. At least one Mediation Server, or a small pool. Microsoft also recommends this approach, but we’ve seen it borne out in the field. Each time we deployed a standalone Mediation Server for a customer location with a SIP trunk, we fielded fewer calls about latency issues (if any).

One caveat for you Skype for Business Server 2019 deployers: According to Brian Siefferman at Perficient, if you’re migrating your Skype4B topology from an existing deployment, it’s a good idea to collocate the legacy Mediation Server during initial deployment. Then you can decide whether to keep it collocated, or move to standalone, later in the process.

Will the Mediation Server Change in Skype for Business Server 2019?

Not fundamentally. It continues its role of call routing/media processing.

We even get a performance boost for Mediation’s call capacity. Paul Lange points out that that a standalone Mediation Server in 2019 will handle 2,000 concurrent calls, with hyper-threading enabled (it can handle 1,500 calls in Skype4B 2015).

Makes sense, since a few deprecated elements deal with messaging—XMPP Gateways, Persistent Chat. Mediation Server won’t need communications with them now, freeing up more processing power for concurrent calls.

Dog Licking Mediation Server
Still reliably doing what it’s ‘trained’ to do.
Photo by James Barker on Unsplash

A Good Listener to Facilitate Voice Calls

The Mediation Server has existed since the OCS 2007 days. Of course, It has grown as more VoIP options came into being. But like its Front End partner, it has continued to provide the same fundamental service for over 10 years.

As long as it has sufficient bandwidth & a reliable gateway available, Mediation Server makes voice calls happen. Which type of gateway you use with it, depends on your network and Site needs.

If you’d like further reference on deploying Mediation Server, try this guide: Mediation Server Deployment Guidelines – MS Docs

What kind of gateway does your Skype for Business’ Mediation Server talk to?

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The 5 Most Useful Skype4B / Teams Posts in 2018

Let’s start 2019 with a refresher. 2018 was a busy year, with new content and updates for older, more evergreen content.

In today’s post I’ve listed our the 5 most popular posts in 2018, by number of unique visits.

If you’re a new reader, welcome! I hope these posts help start you on the road to broadening your Skype for Business/Teams expertise. If you’ve been here a while, glad you’re here. There’s plenty more to come in 2019.

The 5 Most Popular Skype for Business Insider Posts in 2018 (in order)

Can You Turn Off Skype for Business New Message Alerts?
This one definitely struck a chord. Many readers commented about their desire to turn off New Message alerts entirely, or control their appearance. Short version: You have some control over notifications when on mobile. But on desktop, you’re kind of stuck.

Pricing for Skype for Business and Teams: The 2017 Update
In 2015, the original pricing post had thousands of visits within 7 days of publication. When I did this 2017 update, it too garnered thousands of visits up front, and then maintained a streak of traffic all through 2018.

It seems like Microsoft’s pricing shifts keep accelerating…and obfuscating. The post remains accurate, though I’ll put up another pricing post soon to incorporate Skype for Business Server 2019 and current Teams costs.

Working Dog on Hay Bale
Always good to take pride in your work.
Photo by Aitor Romero on Unsplash.

Making Sure You See Skype for Business Notifications – No Matter What!
This post talked about SuperToast as a method of guaranteeing you’d see Skype for Business notifications. It has limitations—no Mac version, no guarantee of Teams compatibility—but it does prove useful. Commenters did point out that some businesses ban third-party add-ons as a precaution (and a valid one), which can hamper SuperToast’s usability.

3 Ways to Make Sure Contact Photos Display in Skype for Business
Essentially, this is me documenting a troubleshooting progress I didn’t need to undertake. I explored a couple of options for making contact photos appear…both of which can indeed resolve a display issue. Just not in my case.

However, I want to note: in April or May of 2018, we had a customer with the same issue. Troubleshooting Point 1, purging an old local cache file & forcing a server refresh, DID resolve the issue. So my meandering helped!

Lync on Linux: How to Access Lync Services from Linux Computers / How to Access Skype for Business and Teams Services on Linux Computers
Yes, this is two posts. The second is a follow-up on the same topic…accessing Skype for Business/Teams services on a Linux device. If you use an Android device, you’re in the best shape possible. A few more options do exist, in varying stages of usability.

Some of these date back as far as 2014. It’s rather heartening to see older posts still helping users!

Where the Blog Is As Of Now – Some Post Updating, Planning Out a Strong Year

I’ve gone through and made updates to each of these posts. A little additional content, including information from reader comments or emails, etc. New readers will get the most benefit…but if you read one of these posts in the past, it wouldn’t hurt to give it another look!

Refresher on Skype for Business
Ahhh, refreshing.
Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash.

To give you a peek into my 2019 plans, here are some post titles on the roster:

  • Pricing for Skype for Business and Teams: 2019 Version
  • How the Mediation Server Fits into Skype for Business
  • The Path to Deploying Skype for Business Server 2019 (Series)
  • The ChatOps War: The Battles Raging
  • How to Preserve Unified Messaging

Have a topic you want to see covered? Leave it in a comment below, or drop me a DM on Twitter at @PlanetMagpieIT!

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The Skype for Business Insider Year in Review – 2018 Edition

Just like that, we’ve reached the last post of 2018!

I do have a post on the Mediation Server for our “How It Fits into Skype for Business” in the works. But since it’s already mid-December, I thought a ‘year in review’ post made more sense.

2018: Year in Review

  • After the Skype for Business/Teams Merger Announcement in late 2017, Microsoft moved fast. Teams reached feature parity in August.
  • Teams Growth Extraordinaire. New desktop client, upgrades to mobile apps. It even surpassed Slack to take the #2 enterprise chat spot, after Skype for Business Server.
  • The ChatOps War raged. The space has both broadened its user base, and lost some of its offerings (HipChat, Stride).
ChatOps War
Not quite this violent, but you get the idea. Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash.
  • The launch of Skype4B Server 2019 in October. We haven’t deployed it for internal use yet, but I know the IT Consulting team has done some testing. Initial impressions good.
  • 26 posts on this blog. Only a little growth this year, but that’s my fault more than anyone else’s. I’m still glad to see we get plenty of traffic, helping hundreds of thousands of people!

2018 wasn’t all great news though…

  • No Linux client for Teams.
  • O365 Outages/Crashes.
  • MS auto-moving new O365 customers to Teams (no access to S4B Online)
  • The announcement of Skype4B Server 2019 came begrudgingly. As I’ve said before, I suspect we won’t get any more on-prem versions after this.
  • We lost one of our office dogs. RIP Patches.
Patches Office Dog

Tumultuous, to say the least. But we’re IT pros. We make things happen no matter what.

What’s Coming in 2019 for the Blog

I know the posting schedule diminished a little this past year. Don’t worry; we’re far from done! Here are some planned posts coming up next year:

  1. A Skype for Business Server 2019 Install Series. We haven’t deployed Skype4B Server 2019 internally yet. But it’s on the docket. Once we do, I’ll blog about everything I can involving the setup, deployment, capabilities, and snags.
  2. Teams Integration/Sunsetting of Skype for Business Online posts. A monumental change coming…what will its aftershocks result in? We’ll all find out.
  3. Software & Device Reviews. I love doing these! Thanks to Yealink, Modality, and Plantronics/Polycom for sharing your hard work with us.
  4. Collaborations. I’d like to do more collaborations in 2019. We’ve done a few in the past here, and they came out great. Are you a fellow tech blogger? A Microsoft tech with years of experience? Let’s talk! Shoot me an email at chris.williams@planetmagpie.com.

No poll this time. But if you have thoughts about the state of Skype for Business/Teams, please feel free to share.

Merry Christmas to IT Pros Everywhere!

We at PlanetMagpie hope everyone has a safe & happy holiday! We’ll see you back here in January, refreshed and ready for another year.

As always, if you have a topic you’d like to see addressed in 2019, please share it with us.

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Device Review: Yealink T58A Skype for Business Phone

Today I’m reviewing the Yealink SIP-T58A desk phone. Like its little brother (which we reviewed last time), this is a softphone designed for Skype for Business users. I put it through the same paces as the T56, within the same Skype for Business deployment.

Not surprisingly, it had very similar results. But they’re not identical phones…and they aren’t meant for identical uses.

As promised, I’ve included some use cases in this post. Instances where one phone works better than the other. Consider this post as a ‘Part 2’ to the previous post.

Ready? Let’s get to the T58A review!

Initial Impressions

The Yealink T58A is, like you’d expect, just a slightly more feature-rich iteration. It has the same dimensions as the T56A, the same desk footprint, and the same standardized phone layout with touch screen.

Here they are side-by-side. Can you spot the difference?

Yealink T56 and T58 Phones

Hint: Look at the touch screens.

Design-wise, the only notable difference between the T56 and T58 is that the T58’s screen is adjustable. In nearly every other aspect, they are identical.

Yealink T58 Adjustable Screen

Because they’re so similar, I took a little more time with this model. Just in case it had any quirks only prolonged use reveals.

(Impromptu test: I accidentally dropped the handset before I could connect it to the cord. Luckily, nothing bad happened! It didn’t even scratch on our concrete floors.)

I did face the same sign-in challenge on the T58A as I did the T56A. It’s set to accept only Trusted Certificates by default. My contact at Yealink says they do this as a security measure. So it’s not really an issue as I said before…I can certainly envision topologies where this makes sense.

The same change we used last time worked here. Here’s the documentation again: Phone Cannot Get Provisioned with Certificate Error – Yealink Support

Once I flipped that switch, zero problems signing in to Skype for Business.

The Major Difference: Video Call Capability

If the T56 and T58 are so similar, why make two different models?

The answer is on the T58’s back. It has a vertical slot in its back, above the USB port. You can remove the cover over this slot and reveal a second, upward-facing USB port.

Yealink T58A Back

From Yealink.com’s page on the T58A:

“You can easily turn your SIP-T58A smart media phone into a video phone ready with an optional removable two-megapixel HD camera CAM50.”

Yealink T58A Camera USB Port

The T56A doesn’t have this slot available. A co-worker commented on the camera slot’s use of USB. It meant you could also plug a USB cable in, moving the camera to a better angle if desired.

Yealink T58A Camera USB Port from Above

It is a USB 2.0 slot, by the way.

Now we know why they made two models. One can take a video expansion module; the other cannot. This makes for a huge difference in use cases. I’ll go over that in a moment.

Please note: This is the SIP-T58A model. That means its camera works with SIP…NOT Skype for Business. Another phone version does that.

That said, let’s go through some testing!

Using Skype for Business on the T58A

Like its brother, the T58A shows favorited Skype contacts on its Home screen. The options, and simplicity of use, are the same too.

I also discovered that both models preserve account details. I disconnected both the T56A and T58A from PoE. Left them idle for a day. Then plugged them both into another PoE cable at a co-worker’s desk.

Both models saved my Skype4B account login. I only had to unlock the phone, and poof, there’s my Presence status & contacts. Nice going on this one Yealink.

Call Quality: Almost an exact mirror to the T56A. One thing I did notice was that the “Noise Proof” technology came through a little better on the T58. That could be due to my listening for it, though.

Voicemail: In a stroke of good luck, I had several voicemails come in succession one day. (Murphy’s Law, you walk away from your desk, and everybody calls…) This gave me a chance to test out the voicemail controls more heavily than before.

You reach voicemail on the T58A through its “Menu” button.

Yealink T58A Menu

I tried both ways of dialing into voicemail:

  • Dial in, then pick up handset
  • Pick up handset, then dial in

No trouble either way.

Bluetooth: The Yealink team encouraged me to test out Bluetooth on the phone. I had to update the firmware in order to do this; the version shipped with the phone didn’t have Bluetooth enabled yet.

(NOTE: A new firmware just came out a few days prior to my review. If you buy a Yealink after reading this, your phone’s screen will look different.)

Updating the firmware took 5 minutes. Well, 10, if you count the download time.
Yealink Support – T58A Downloads

Once I’d updated, Bluetooth appeared as a rocker switch in Settings. You can enable Bluetooth and WiFi from the Web admin menu, or directly on the phone.

Yealink T58A Bluetooth Setting

From there it’s the typical pairing process: Open the Bluetooth screen on the phone, wait for BT devices to show up in the “Available Devices” list, and tap to pair.

I paired my Jabra Motion Office headset. I keep its base wired to my laptop dock. To test, I disconnected the base from my dock, so it couldn’t field calls coming from my laptop.

Shortly afterward, two calls came in. The Jabra started beeping right away, just like it normally does.

I did notice a slightly shorter ‘walking range’ while taking these calls though. When my Jabra takes a call from the laptop, I can walk clear across the office and still have a nice clear call. When my Jabra took the calls through the T58, I got a little crackle of static when I walked about ten feet away.

Nothing huge. All in all, the phone did a good job of working with my Bluetooth headset.

Issues: Security/Hacking Concern

A reader messaged me after the T56 post went up. “Yealink phones get hacked all the time. Don’t use them!”

I checked on this, and did find several reports from people dealing with hacked Yealinks. All older models though. I searched specifically for the T56A and T58A, but didn’t come across hacking reports on them.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Far from it! But the reader’s warning raises an extremely important point, not just about Yealink phones:

Whenever deploying a new VoIP phone, no matter the manufacturer, make sure it’s fully secured before issued to the user.

Default passwords changed. Firewall in place. Logging enabled. Ports closed. It’s another computer on the network…thus, a potential cyberattack vector. Treat it like one.

Use Cases for the T56A and T58A

Given how similar these phones are, it took me a while to determine separate use cases. They’re both solid phones, with an extremely useful Web administrative menu per device.

I did though! Here are some use cases where each of the Yealink T-Series phones would serve well.

T56A:

  • Run-of-the-mill desk workers.
  • Compliance-heavy workstations, if regulations prohibit display of certain materials in a video feed. Even accidentally.
  • Multiple branch offices, in a bulk deployment (especially if you manage the branch offices’ IT remotely).
  • Common Area Phone. Both models have a CAP function in their settings. I prefer the T56 here since it’s a simpler device with no video.

T58A: All of the above, as well as the following.

  • Branch Management phones, for frequent conferencing.
  • Sales/Marketing team phones, for quick video calls.
  • Customer Service phones…in case you really want to embody ‘customer-facing’!
  • Small-team conferencing phone (though Yealink does have a series of conferencing phones, called the “CP Series”).
  • Non-Skype for Business VoIP deployments. The camera add-on works with SIP video…but this version doesn’t work for Skype for Business video. That’s the Yealink T58A Skype for Business Edition.

Now, what are some use cases where Yealink makes a good choice, as opposed to other SIP phone brands (e.g. Polycom, AudioCodes)?

  • You run Skype for Business Server on-prem or hybrid.
  • Moving to Teams IS on your radar. Yealink has T56 and T58 models configured for Teams use.
  • You have multiple offices, but similar communications needs (which means you can standardize deployment & save time/money).

The Verdict: An Easy-to-Use, Expandable Desk Phone for Power Users

Now that I’ve completed my reviews, I handed the T58A over to the co-worker I mentioned last post. His turn to play. He’ll also put the phone through its interoperability paces, in our own network and at customer sites. It has to work within our security parameters before he’ll sign off on customer use.

Yealink T58A SIP Phone

I do like the T58A’s video expansion option. But I personally don’t use video much. It’s a nice-to-have for standard users. For power users though, it’s necessary. Which is why I say power users would get more value from the T58A than the T56A.

You can get the Yealink SIP-T58A from Jenne.com.

Does your office use Yealink SIP phones like these? Please share your impressions in the comments.

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Device Review: Yealink T56A Skype for Business Phone

Time for a new device to review! This time we have a new desk phone: the SIP-T56A from Yealink. Matt at Jenne.com kindly sent me this unit for review, after we expressed interest in the Yealink line.

The T56A is designed for Skype for Business use. It does support expansion modules, as well as Bluetooth & Wi-Fi connectivity, and plays nice with Office 365.

Would Yealinks serve as a good alternative to Polycom phones, if we couldn’t get a Polycom (or the customer didn’t like them)? Will they stand up to the daily grind? How well do they work with Skype for Business?

Let’s find out!

Initial Impressions

I unboxed the T56A as soon as it arrived. Pulling it out, I did a quick comparison to the Polycoms we have around the office. The T56A weighs about the same as those, but it’s wider. You’ll need a little desk space for it.

Yealink Phone Unboxing
Yealink T56A Unboxed

It’s a pretty straightforward phone console. Buttons for hold, transfer, volume, mute, etc. Build quality’s solid; nothing about this feels flimsy or loose.

Yealink T56A Dialpad

The phone comes with a big touch screen attached. You can’t adjust the touch screen on the T56, but at least it’s low-glare. You can lower its brightness too, under Settings > Basic > Display > Backlight.

Yealink T56 Phone Setup

The T56 doesn’t need a separate power adapter if you use PoE (but one is optional). I plugged this in to a PoE network cable.

Issues: Signing In

The phone booted as soon as I plugged in the PoE cable. It brought me to a nice simple start window within about 20 seconds.

Yealink T56A Boot

Once the phone finished startup, it brought me to a Sign In menu right away. I had three choices: An Extension/PIN sign-in, a Skype for Business sign-in, or a Web sign-in.

Yealink T56A Skype for Business

(Side note: Since the phone sent me straight into Sign In, I didn’t realize for several minutes that I could just hit Back a few times and reach the phone’s main menu!)

Now, here’s where I had the one issue. I had some difficulty getting signed in. It wanted me to use an extension and PIN at first, but I didn’t have those. (I did try my previous phone’s extension and PIN, but alas, no use.)

Next I opted for the Skype User Sign In. We run Skype for Business Server 2015 on-prem, and this phone used a PoE cable to connect. Should be no problem at all, right?

I entered my sign-in address (email), username (the same email), and my Skype4B password. Took me a couple tries to figure this out; the instructions didn’t specify the format.

When I did get the right combination, I saw the following error: “Cert web service not found.”

Hmmm. Did we have an issue with our on-prem Front End? I checked with the Consulting team. No, the Front End’s fine.

I checked online and found the solution: In default settings, the T56A only accepts Trusted Certificates. This can inhibit initial sign-ins, even on secured Skype for Business Front Ends.

Luckily, the fix is simple. Yealink has it documented on their Support site: Phone Cannot Get Provisioned with Certificate Error – Yealink Support

The phone also has a Web administrative menu. You access it by entering the phone’s assigned IP into your web browser, like most such devices (e.g. “http://192.168.1.1”). The instructions contain the default login & password for this admin menu.

The fix involves disabling the Trusted Certificate Only option in the admin menu, under the Security tab. Once I did this, I discovered a very handy shortcut. Instead of returning to the phone and re-entering my login, I could sign into Skype4B right from the admin menu!

All I had to do was click the Account tab, enter my login & password, and boom. The phone recognized the sign-in and displayed its main screen. Ready for testing!

Using Skype for Business on the T56A

The T56A main screen shows favorited Skype contacts. You have a bottom toolbar with four options: Favorites, History, Contacts, and Menu. Menu gives you the Calendar, Voice Mail, Status, Setting, and Meet Now buttons. All styled consistently with Skype for Business.

Yealink T56A Main Screen

The phone’s DEAD-simple to work with (heh heh). I replaced my normal desk phone, a Polycom CX300, with it to test out. I anticipated some learning curve, of course…it would take me a couple days to familiarize myself with the different ways to make & handle calls, right?

Nope! Within minutes I had this phone down. Unlock PIN set, favorites configured, and I know where & how to change my Presence status in two taps.

I connected my Jabra Motion Office headset to the T56A as well, using the headset port on the back. No configuration necessary.

Yealink T56 with Jabra Headset
T56A hanging out with my Jabra headset.

Now, the most important aspect of a phone: Call Quality.

Since I replaced my Polycom with the T56A, it handled all my calls for the past week. The handset is marked HD, and judging by call quality, it’s true. Everyone’s voices came through as clear as could be, whether co-worker (internal) or customer (external).

(Even the recorded spam message came through nice and clear. No idea how they got my number…)

To illustrate the call quality, let me draw a comparison. When you talk with your co-workers on one device, and then switch to another, you can tell which device is clearer, can’t you? You already know their voice. Your brain knows how they should sound. So when one device carries their voice sharper than the other, you notice.

That’s what happened during my T56A testing. Voices came through sharper on the T56A than on my prior phone (the Polycom CX300).

I found out afterward that this happens, at least in part, due to Yealink’s “Noise Proof” technology. The phone actually blocks out background noise while you’re on a call. I’ve seen this demonstrated on other phones before. The fact that I didn’t think of it until well after my calls says Yealink did a good job with their own version.

The Web Admin Menu: Yealink’s Secret Superpower

The Web administrative menu is incredible on these phones…I can configure every aspect of the phone from my browser. From changing ringtones to upgrading firmware.

Yealink Web Admin

Not only does that save a HUGE amount of provisioning time, it means I can totally avoid hunching over the phone, tapping out letters on the touch screen.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s great that the T56A has a touch screen in the first place. The screen has a good response rate, analogous to an Android smartphone. But if I can save a few minutes typing on my laptop’s keyboard, so much the better!

Having a comprehensive Web admin menu makes a big difference for IT professionals. It means we can provision devices remotely, with ease.

All we need is the phone’s IP address when it’s plugged into the network. The IP address is under Settings > Status. With that, we can take care of Skype for Business configuration, security updates, directory control, and so on. The user just has to plug the phone in!

The Verdict: An Excellent Desk Phone for Skype for Business Users

I showed the T56A to a colleague. He handles hardware deployment for most of our Skype for Business customers. Most of the time he deploys Polycom phones, with Jabra or Plantronics headsets.

He saw what this device can do and his eyes almost popped out of his head! “Why didn’t we have this before?!” He started throwing out names of customer sites where he could place them. I stopped him at #5. He could have kept going. Coming from him, an IT pro who’s worked with dozens of device manufacturers over the past 25 years, I consider that high praise.

You can get the Yealink SIP-T56A from Jenne.com.

Next up I’ll test the T56A’s brother, the Yealink T58A. I’ll include a comparison of the two models, and good use cases for both. See you back here next time!

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Do We Still Need the Skype for Business Director? In One Instance, Yes!

The poor Director server role. No longer needed by Teams, its primary function usurped by Azure AD for Office 365…Microsoft’s march into the future seems to have passed right by it.

Now, this is not the first time Microsoft has left a server by the digital wayside. But I have a special place in my heart for Directors. I like the concept, and what it embodies, Looking at the Skype for Business/Teams ecosystem now, I thought Directors would join Microsoft Bob and Small Business Server on the trash heap.

But I found a little light instead…one instance where it does still make sense to deploy Directors in today’s world. Let’s find out what that is!

What a Director Does, and How Skype for Business Changed Around It

I first wrote about the Director way back in 2012: What’s the Director For?
I characterized it as a sentry on the castle walls. Permitting only legitimate Lync/Skype for Business users entry.
That’s what a Director does—it provides authentication for users, so the Front End Server/Pool doesn’t have to. The Front End carries on with facilitating calls, Meetings, etc. while the Director handles authentication.

Now, the Front End CAN handle authentication requests as well. It never needed the Director. Having a Director server/pool helped in two ways:

  1. Ease congestion on the Front End Server/Pool, which often translates to better call quality & Meeting stability.
  2. Defend against DoS attacks targeting the Skype for Business Server. Not a common threat, but a growing one in recent years.

So the analogy still holds. You can still use a Director as a sentry, defending your Skype for Business deployment.

The Director Role and Offloading Authentication in Skype for Business 2015 – IT Pro Today

Director as Authentication Sentry
You shall not pass! …unless you brought me a treat!
Photo by Kenan Süleymanoğlu on Unsplash

But what if the deployment structure changes?

Which is what Microsoft’s done. By first offering a Hybrid deployment option with Office 365, then introducing Teams and beginning to fold Skype for Business Online into it, Microsoft’s slowly pulling the rug out from under Directors.

What about authentication requests though? How will Teams and Office 365 manage all those requests in your tenants?

Skype for Business Hybrid and Teams: Director’s Role Usurped

Since Office 365 tenants handle authentication through Microsoft’s cloud-based Azure Active Directory, they don’t need on-prem authentication from a Director. But what about hybrid deployments?

In most hybrid configurations, authentication’s done through on-prem Active Directory and Azure AD. Azure AD syncs to your on-prem Active Directory server, providing a built-in failsafe. Directors become superfluous.

However, Directors are still mentioned as a possible hybrid topology component on Microsoft’s Plan hybrid connectivity between Skype for Business Server and Skype for Business Online page:

To configure your deployment for hybrid with Skype for Business Online, you need to have one of the following supported topologies:

  • A mixed Lync Server 2013 and Skype for Business Server 2015 deployment with the following server roles in at least one site running Skype for Business Server 2015:
    • At least one Enterprise Pool or Standard Edition server
    • The Director Pool associated with SIP federation, if it exists
    • The Edge Pool associated with SIP federation
  • A mixed Lync Server 2010 and Skype for Business Server 2015 deployment with the following server roles in at least one site running Skype for Business Server 2015:
    • At least one Enterprise Pool or Standard Edition server
    • The Director Pool associated with SIP federation, if it exists
    • The Edge Pool associated with SIP federation for the Site
  • A mixed Lync Server 2010 and Lync Server 2013 deployment with the following server roles in at least one site running Lync Server 2013:
    • At least one Enterprise Pool or Standard Edition server in the site
    • The Director Pool associated with SIP federation, if it exists in the site
    • The Edge Pool associated with SIP federation for the site

“If it exists.” In other words, the Director is not critical to these hybrid topologies.

What about Teams? Since Teams will absorb Skype for Business Online anyway, does Teams need a separate authentication server?

No. It’s not designed that way. Even if it was, as a fully cloud-based application, Azure AD will handle the authentication. A Director isn’t listed anywhere in the Teams dependencies for guest access…only Azure AD.

(Whether or not Azure AD handles guest accounts & user expansion WELL is up for debate…but we’ve talked about that already.)

Director on guard duty
Yeah, the fence keeps people out. But I still hang out here, in case someone climbs over it…
Photo by Elizabeth French on Unsplash

It’s safe to say that for Office 365 and Teams, Azure AD usurped the Director’s role. That leaves us with one other potential use: the upcoming Skype for Business Server 2019.

Directors Going Away? Not Quite. Not Yet.

The Director sees a tidbit of salvation in our next on-prem Skype for Business Server. Ever-knowledgeable Tom Arbuthnot hints at the Director staying in Skype4B Server 2019, citing it under the 2019 System Requirements on his blog: Skype for Business Server 2019 Public Preview, What’s New, What’s Gone? – Tom Talks

Edge Servers, standalone Mediation Servers, and Director: 6-core, 2.4 gigahertz / 16GB RAM / 8 or more 10000 RPM disks or SSD / Gig NIC/ dual Gig NIC for Edge

These may seem steep. But they’re almost identical to Front End Server requirements; the only exception is that Front End needs 64 GB RAM.

I can see many admins using requirements to justify dropping Directors from their 2019 deployments. In truth, our IT Consulting team hasn’t installed a Director in any Skype for Business deployments (on-prem or hybrid) since early 2017.

However, after some discussion and brainstorming, I realized the Director is in Server 2019 for a reason. One Skype for Business topology does exist where a Director helps.

The One Deployment Topology Where a Director (Still) Makes Sense: Director on Guard

Here’s my “Director On Guard” topology. The deployment must meet all of the following characteristics:

  • Enterprise business
  • Installing Skype for Business Server 2019
  • Fully on-prem
  • More than 2 office locations
  • 1,000+ users
  • The company has suffered a cyberattack in the past

Why these? I’m so glad you asked.

  1. An enterprise business will want the control and security they can exert over data trafficked within Skype for Business. This also gives them control over their phone system.
  2. More than 2 locations means branch servers to maintain the call network. More than 1,000 users means thousands of authentication requests every single day.
  3. A cyberattack? Nothing makes cybersecurity more important than suffering a cyberattack. (I wish this on NOBODY, but it’s a tragic reality of our world.)

In this case, the Director serves a purpose. It performs its original function of handling authentication requests, taking load off the Front End pool and preserving bandwidth. All worthwhile performance goals, which makes IT look good to the budget-conscious C-suite.

A Director also provides additional guard against cybercriminals. Post-cyberattack security improvements go a long way toward securing the network, and user workstations. The Director performs a similar role within the Skype for Business ecosystem—a central component of the enterprise business’ communications.

It’s doing its time-honored job…being a silent sentinel, ready to admit those who have authorization, and defend against those who do not. Hence my terming it, “Director on Guard.”

If we don’t get an on-prem Skype for Business version after 2019, it’s likely the Director role will fade with it. That’s okay…it’s done its job. But for now, don’t count the Director out yet. With cyberattacks on an upward swing, all systems need protection. Including Skype for Business.

Do you still use a Director in your Skype for Business deployment?

 

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How to Access Skype for Business and Teams Services on Linux Computers

Want to access Skype for Business or Teams on Linux? You’re not alone. I wrote a post back in 2014 titled, “Lync on Linux: How to Access Lync Services on Linux Computers.” It remains one of the most-read posts on this blog today, almost 4 years later.

I decided to revisit the topic after seeing that in my analytics. What kind of Linux-based tools did we get (if any) since then? I’ll include Teams in this post too, since that’s where Skype for Business is (mostly) heading. Let’s see what the Linux landscape holds, shall we?

The Big Question: Did Microsoft Make a Skype for Business for Linux? Will They?

First, the bad news: We still don’t have a Linux version of the Skype for Business app.
Installing Skype for Business on Linux – Microsoft Community

A check on the Office 365 roadmap confirms zero items related to Linux. People definitely want it though, according to this SkypeFeedback.com thread:
Linux Desktop Client for Skype for Business – SkypeFeedback.com

Given the dearth of results, I don’t think we’ll ever get a full-version Skype for Business Linux client. But that doesn’t mean we close the door. Other options do exist, in varying categories of usability.

What kind of tools are out there? Desktop clients do exist. Web apps as well, in case those don’t work or have too few features. Let’s not forget the Android platform as well…more people use Android than iOS worldwide.

Linux-Based Skype for Business Tools, and How Usable They Are

1. Skype for Business Web App
Can you use the ‘official’ Skype for Business Web App on a Linux computer? Not…really.

The Web App installs a browser plugin to work. Said plugin, unfortunately, only works on Windows. You can install a Windows VM and use the Web App. But at that point, you might as well install the desktop client! As such, this is a ‘just barely’ option.

Skype for Business Web App Under Linux – Reddit

Skype for Business Video
“What do you mean you can’t turn on video? They must see my cuteness!”
Photo by Pete Bellis on Unsplash

2. Tel.Red Sky Linux App
Tel.Red has built & maintained a Linux client for Skype for Business for several years. They call it Sky Linux. There’s a free version with call limits. Full versions costs $49/year per user…quite reasonable.

I put this in the “not bad” category. It DOES work, in most cases. It’s missing some meetings-related and call-related features though, such as delegates and video-based screen sharing.

3. Pidgin+SIPE Plugin
This solution lands in the “OK, a bit clunky” category. As I mentioned in the 2014 article, the Pidgin IM client has a Linux version.

It does not natively support Skype for Business communications. For that, you’ll need the SIPE plugin.

With the two working in tandem, you can connect to Skype for Business servers and chat. One caveat though…the SIPE plugin hasn’t received an update since February of last year. Which means it may not like working with the newest sharing & meeting features. Your mileage may vary, depending on configuration.

Still, it’s a good effort, and I want to commend the SIPE developers for their work. Add-ons like these can fuel huge growth in software capabilities—something very worth our support!

Linux Skype for Business
The Code of Linux grows…
Photo by Sai Kiran Anagani on Unsplash

4. Android App
This goes in the “Best Option” category. You’ll get the most features and the easiest install/configuration.

Yes, Skype for Business does have an Android app! Skype for Business – Google Play

The app does have limitations of course…you can’t present a program from Android, do Consultative Transfer, or use meeting tools like the whiteboard. (In fairness, the iOS app has most of the same limitations.)

Feature Comparison between Skype for Business Desktop Client and Mobile Devices – MS Docs

Its latest version seems plagued by login troubles though. Frustrating, but the app still beats other options for native Linux functionality.

What About Teams on Linux? Much More Accessible

When it comes to Linux, Microsoft Teams is another matter. Because Teams runs in the Azure cloud, you can get to it in a browser on Linux. You may not have full feature access though; our good friend Tom Arbuthnot reports that Teams doesn’t have audio/video support on Linux. You may get audio if you use Chrome, according to Tom’s comments.

Microsoft says a native Linux client for Teams is “on the backlog.” Which explains why it doesn’t show on the O365 roadmap either.

UPDATE 10-17-18: Aaaand Microsoft pulled the plug on a Linux client for Teams. Sorry folks. Wish they hadn’t done that. But they did.

UPDATE 11-1-18: Microsoft updated their plans to put a Linux Teams client back ‘on the backlog.’ So far, that’s all they’ve done. No more progress reports since.

However, the Teams Android app is going strong. It just got an upgrade in fact: Microsoft Teams for Android Updated with New Call-Related Features – MS Power User

While I’m glad Teams works on Linux, it appears the Android app carries even more functionality. So your best bet for Teams on Linux is to use that!

Teams Made Further Linux Progress Than Skype for Business

In the 2014 post I joked that more Skype-related development would come…mostly from the Linux community. Now, I wasn’t wrong! But with Teams eventually supplanting Skype for Business, and Android apps getting more focus, Microsoft’s definitely paying SOME attention to the Linux side of things.

Linux Lemons
Linux gets some lemons. But it’s good at making lemonade!
Photo by Ernest Porzi on Unsplash

That said, we have a Windows desktop client for Skype for Business and Teams. We have iOS and Android apps for Skype for Business and Teams. We do not have a native Linux client for Skype for Business or Teams. Will we get one? Maybe for Teams. For Skype for Business? Probably not.

What’s your Linux/Skype for Business/Teams situation?

UPDATE 3: A commenter pointed out a Github project: Teams for Linux (Unofficial). Essentially, a wrapper for the Teams Web app. It has several known issues, but does provide a desktop alternative for Linux users. Thanks developers!

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Dissecting the Free Teams Offering

Microsoft has released Teams as a free offering. No Office 365 account required. But how viable is it as a standalone chat app?

That’s what we’re looking at today. I’ve setup a fresh Teams account for testing. We’re looking at how useful it is for everyday communications, what limits exist compared to Office 365’s Teams, and how this may or may not affect Skype for Business.

I will share this up front – I don’t think a free Teams harms Skype for Business at this stage. But it may harm another Microsoft property.

Setting Up a Free Teams Account

Normally, Microsoft requires you to use a Microsoft Account with its offerings. In the case of the Team free offering, they’ve relaxed this requirement. They only require “any corporate or consumer email address.”

I do have a Microsoft Account for my work email, of course. But I decided against using it for this test. Why? I read some comments on TechCommunity indicating a problem with registering a free Teams offering, and then later trying to set up Teams in Office 365. If you use an email associated with an Office 365 tenant already, or one you may associate in the future, Teams will try to set you up in Office 365 instead.

There’s also this comment by Microsoft’s Albert Chen, which references a one-Teams-only limitation for email addresses:

Albert Chen Microsoft Teams
The highlight reads, “Currently, each email can only sign-up for one Teams free organization, however you can be invited into both of them.”

We may just have a growing pain here. But I opted not to take the chance. Instead, I used a Gmail account I set up years ago for Google-related reports at work. That way I don’t cause any trouble if the office decides to move to Teams later on. (Which we might…)

Setting up “Teams Free” is very simple. Head to https://products.office.com/en-US/microsoft-teams/free and enter your email address. The setup is entirely guided and only takes a few steps, so I’ll skip detailing it here. Suffice to say it’s no more difficult than signing up for a new Skype Consumer account.

Once I’d completed setup, clicked the Get Started link in the welcome email, and downloaded the Teams desktop app? Off to the races!

Teams Welcome Screen

Features and Limitations in Teams Free

At first glance, Teams Free looks exactly like its Office 365 brother. To a large degree, they share feature sets. But, with any free offering, you’d expect some limitations…and Teams is no different.

What’s Available:
Unlimited Chat? Check.
Teams Channels (as many as you want)? Check.
Activity Feed? Check.

Teams Chat Options
There’s our old friend “Meet Now.”

File storage/sharing? Check.
Third-party add-ons? Check.
Audio and video calls? Check and check.

You have your choice of desktop and/or mobile apps. Even our little buddy T-Bot shows up. In terms of everyday chat and calls, Teams Free works just like Office 365 Teams.

What’s NOT Available:
According to the Teams Free page details, the free version does NOT have:

  • Exchange email hosting
  • Custom email domains
  • Full-version OneDrive, SharePoint, Planner, Yammer, and more Office 365 services
  • Scheduled Meetings
  • Meeting/call recordings

Finally, it has a file storage cap of 2GB/user (with a max 10GB of shared storage).

Most of these limitations make sense. Teams Free operates outside of the Office 365 ecosystem (technically), which means no direct access to shared services and email functionality. The rest seem meant to restrict the file storage needed on Microsoft’s side. As well as provide incentive to upgrade!

Teams Free
The Upgrade button is under “Manage Org” in your profile.

Teams Free’s Effect on Skype for Business: Negligible

We already know Teams will eventually replace Skype for Business within Office 365. Teams Free isn’t likely to hurt those plans…in fact it’ll likely help them, as freemium offerings have in the past.

My question is, will Teams Free hurt Skype for Business Server? I don’t think so. Consider the differences in setup, and the feature approach each takes.

Simpler Setup. The setup process for Teams Free roughly equates to Slack’s in terms of time. That is much faster than Skype for Business setup, but they have different audiences. Skype for Business Server addresses comprehensive communications needs for larger businesses. Teams and Slack, however, target smaller businesses who move fast & prefer chat apps just as quick.

Small-Business Features vs. Enterprise Capacity. Teams Free has a 300-user limit. Skype for Business Server does not. Companies using Skype for Business Server likely have regulatory compliance requirements. Teams users likely don’t.

If anything, Teams Free will hurt Slack’s user base. With a fresh, free offering, Microsoft may lure existing Slack users away from their paid accounts. The timing may even capture some soon-to-be-former HipChat & Stride users.

However, I can’t say Teams Free won’t hurt another Microsoft communications tool…

Will This Hurt Skype? That May Be the Plan

Microsoft’s offering Teams Free as a chat platform for everyone. They can send messages, call people, even do video. All it takes is an email address. Sound like anything else to you?

ChatOps War
Surprise takedown! Hey, aren’t you on my team…?
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Sounds like Skype Consumer to me. Which may be the point. Microsoft may want to reduce Skype Consumer’s use in the workplace by wedging in Teams Free.

In total, releasing Teams for free accomplishes three goals:

  1. Competing more directly with Slack
  2. Attracting more people & businesses to the full Office 365 suite
  3. Luring small businesses & some individuals away from Skype onto Teams

Why do Goal #3? I think because it feeds into Goal #2. Many businesses use Skype Consumer for day-to-day communications. It’s free, it works (well enough), and it’s simple to use. Now we have Teams Free, which meets all those criteria and even expands on the feature set.

Does this mean Microsoft will shutter Skype Consumer? It’s possible…but I wouldn’t hold my breath just yet. They have bigger moves to make.

Teams Free is Late to the Battle, But Don’t Dismiss its Power

There’s one more factor to consider in Teams Free adoption: Existing Teams users. Smaller businesses may opt to cancel their Office 365 subscriptions and move to Teams Free, if they don’t need all of the features full-version Teams offers. Add in Slack or HipChat/Stride users who didn’t want to buy into the Office 365 ecosystem before, and Teams Free may build up its user base via poaching.

The ChatOps War continues to rage. It’s already claimed casualties. Teams Free is up against entrenched opponents. But it presents a good-enough-for-most feature set and a stable platform. The coming months may see quite a leap in its adoption.

Are you using Teams Free in your business? Please share how well it works for you in the comments!

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6 Questions about Atlassian Discontinuing HipChat & Stride

By now you’ve likely heard about Atlassian’s shuttering of its HipChat & Stride products. The decision has many implications, from Atlassian’s future as a company to the ChatOps space worldwide.

HipChat Logo
Still smiling!

Other bloggers have asked important questions about this move. How will this affect Slack users? Will Stride users go to Slack or jump ship to Teams?

All valid questions. But in this post, I’d like to ask a few others. Questions which came up during my own reading. Some already have answers. Most don’t…those will come with time, as the shuttering takes effect & the market responds.

I’m documenting these 6 questions here for discussion’s sake. If you currently use HipChat or Stride, you have a decision to make before 2019. I hope these questions help you tackle it.

Any & all feedback welcomed…particularly from current HipChat/Stride users!

 

Six Questions We Need to Ask about HipChat & ChatOps as a Whole

The Developers Question. HipChat is, as I understand, popular with developers. Particularly developers who work on Atlassian products. Finding another chat platform is easy for a developer…but will Slack try to make them welcome? Developer discussions can get very technical, with code snippets and live testing on the fly.

Slack does have code snippet capability. But so does Teams. So does Google Hangouts, to a degree.

Atlassian-friendly developers will need an environment that contributes to their work, via app integrations and workflows. How well the Atlassian/Slack partnership works will make a big difference.

 

The Mid-Market Question. ChatOps products like Stride, HipChat, and Slack are popular among mid-market companies as well as enterprises. Yet I’ve seen enterprises as the exclusive focus for most of the current speculation.

In our own experience, this is where ChatOps are taking root. More mid-market customers come to us asking about chat platforms like Teams than the reverse (us introducing them to chat).

Will Slack actively court those mid-market companies? I know Teams does this. And you can bet other chat platforms will too.

 

Atlassian Logos
“Please don’t leave us too!”

The Question of Atlassian’s Other Products. I saw a few angry tweets after this announcement. HipChat/Stride users feeling betrayed. Not wanting to go to Slack; if they wanted that, they could have done so months prior.

Nothing says they have to move to Slack. But what if after the February cutoff, they abandon the entire Atlassian product base?

Teams does have Add-Ons for integrating Atlassian tools like Trello and Jira. You can also duplicate much of their functions with other Add-Ons or cloud services. Even so, this could end up hurting Atlassian’s overall product base. I would NOT encourage this (I like Trello!) …but it’s undoubtedly possible.

 

The “Work Processing” Question. I came across this in a CMSWire article covering the announcement. I quote from the section titled, “‘Work Processing’ Tools Emerging”:

Boyd noted that despite enterprise collaboration tools like Slack, Teams and Facebook grabbing headlines, a new generation of document-centered tools — Quip, Notion.so, Slite, Nuclino, and others — are gaining steam. He calls them “work processing” tools. They support shared documents with styled text, embedded objects (tables, videos, images), tasks and checklists and social affordances: threaded comments, internal notifications and messaging.

“In this approach,” Boyd said, “documents are not just dumb files with styled text, sitting in a cloud file system. Instead of relying on work chat communications, which are only structured by channels and search, work processing relies on a system of documents to structure company information and discourse. This can also be integrated with work chat, or may include work chat internally. A trend to keep an eye on.”

I fiddled with Notion.so a little. It’s similar to a Wiki, using Markdown and simple workspaces. Since it’s document-based, not chat-based, this sort of tool represents a totally different approach from Slack or Teams. (I may do a more in-depth comparison in the future; it’s got a certain appeal.)

These newer products may tempt people away from Slack into a leaner, more all-in-one workspace. It may become a wild card in adoption/migration.

 

The Privacy Question. I’ve mentioned HipChat Data Center when talking about the Redis Cache, and the Skype4B Quagmire. Like Skype for Business Server, one of its biggest advantages was the privacy benefits of on-prem deployment.

Now we have one less option for those companies who require on-prem data control.

You do still have Skype for Business Server 2015/2019, of course. But with its future uncertain, some might see switching off HipChat to Skype for Business as a risky bet.

“But Slack protects your data privacy too!” Correct! So does Teams. The issue here isn’t what privacy protections exist…it’s whether companies will accept cloud-based privacy vs. on-prem privacy they control. It’s a comfort issue, not a technical one.

 

Finally, the Mattermost Challenger. Mattermost competes with Slack, but is open-source. Any organization can deploy it, either in a private cloud or on-prem.

Here’s the kicker. Mattermost also integrates with other Atlassian products: Jira, Bitbucket, Trello. It not only competes with Slack, it can directly target the HipChat/Stride users Atlassian wants to shuttle over to Slack.

Setting up Mattermost requires a little more technical know-how than Slack, which may get in the way of courting HipChat/Stride users. Nevertheless, more tech-oriented companies may consider jumping ship to Mattermost instead.

 

Predictions for Post-Discontinuation (Feb 2019)

Abandoned ChatOps
Okay, I’m here for the meeting! …guys?

Photo by Yener Ozturk on Unsplash.

As I like to do, I’ll close with some predictions. In light of questions like these, what will happen after HipChat & Stride go offline in February?

  1. The majority of Stride users will switch to Slack with little fuss.
  2. A large portion of HipChat users will move to Slack as well.
  3. A small percentage of companies running HipChat Data Center will continue to do so, even without Atlassian support.
  4. Trello, Jira, and Confluence will all suffer drops in usage. Since users have to abandon HipChat and Stride, some companies will abandon all Atlassian products at the same time.
  5. Teams/Office 365 will see a small boost in user growth after February, from those HipChat/Stride users who don’t want/can’t use Slack.
  6. “Work Processing” tools like Notion.so will see growth on an organic basis. The HipChat-to-Slack transition won’t have much of an effect.

 

Additional Links:
Slack and Microsoft Teams: Is Enterprise Collaboration a Two Horse Race? – CMS Wire
How Slack and Atlassian Landed a Sharp Jab in Microsoft’s Ribs – CIODive.com
Atlassian-Slack Partnership FAQ

Do you use HipChat or Stride? What will your company do in light of the discontinuation?

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