It seems to have gone a little unnoticed, but Microsoft is in the middle of a major video conferencing gamble.
In a bid to dominate the workplace collaboration market that has risen to unquestioned prominence over the past few years on the back of the success of Slack, the tech giant is ditching one of its biggest brands. As of this year, Microsoft is phasing out its highly visible Skype for Business app and asking its users to migrate across to Teams. Now, when I say the shift has gone unnoticed, it’s not news of the event that I’m referring to, but the size of the risk. Skype for Business is part of the working life of millions of monthly active users and forcing them to change the way they go about their day could end badly.
Toward smoothing the transition, the company has announced a range of new Microsoft Teams features that should make the platform a video conferencing leader. Whether that’s enough to retain their Office 365-based user base, however, remains to be seen.
A New Office Battlefield
Skype for Business is in its death throes. Microsoft’s own sites are actively asking users to start considering “the timing for moving to Teams that best meets their needs,” and there’s a roadmap available for download that charts the course to this new frontier. It’s all part of a push to get in on the latest form of unified communications that is taking over offices.
What began with Slack as a way of instant chat communication across a professional team is now more than workplace collaboration: it’s a method of combining everything from creating a document to attending a video conference within a single interface.
Competition within this new field is intense, with everyone from major companies like Facebook and Google to smaller operators like Symphony getting in on the act. Some experts have predicted a bloody consolidation of the market will begin to play out this year, with vendors being forced to shut down or adapt into ever smaller niches, such as industry-specific offerings.
This may be why Microsoft is keen to trumpet its recently added features.
New Microsoft Teams Features
The list of new features will make Teams one of the more rounded video calling software services. It includes a few features that are usually part of video calling hardware like webcams, and some that have been lifted from existing Skype features.
The new features include:
AI-Powered Background Blur: The new background blur feature in Teams uses software to automatically fuzz out the background of your video call. The built-in AI uses depth perception to separate callers from their surroundings.
Video Calling with Cortana: Microsoft’s virtual assistant will be added to the Teams mix, which should mean voice-activation, automated video meeting scheduling, and staging, and could handle the zoom, pan, and crop features of the camera.
Automated Recording: Not only will Teams record your video meeting, it’ll produce an automatic, searchable transcript of the event and store it for you in the cloud.
Message Translation: One of Skype’s innovations, message translation has since grown into live video translation on that platform and will no doubt head to Teams soon.
Mobile Live Streaming: An important recognition of the rise in bring-your-own-device (BYOD) video meetings, the feature will let smartphone users not only attend meetings but also share video, photos, and their screen from the phone, which is usually just a passive viewing portal.
None of these features are industry firsts, but their inclusion does raise the potential that Teams will be a do-it-all video conferencing host in addition to its primary role of office chat network. That kind of flexibility will be key to its success/survival.
Can Teams Convince Skype for Business Users to Stay Loyal?
From a video conferencing standpoint, the integration of all those features into a software solution is promising. While they’ve all been seen elsewhere before–BlueJeans, for instance, just announced a virtual assistant that will record and transcribe video meetings–putting them into a subscription service reduces the need to buy an expensive “smart” camera. You’re still going to want something with HD visuals and a solid frame rate, but the extras you currently pay for, such as background blur, become optional.
Whether those tricks are enough to keep Skype for Business customers loyal during the transition to Teams is another matter. By uprooting those users Microsoft has forced them to reconsider the wider workplace collaboration market.
Of course, access to Office 365 is, without doubt, a huge draw for many–and will remain the foundation of the service. However, if you have to change the way you work to adopt Teams, why not look at how Slack or Atlassian or Google Hangouts Chat–or even Workplace by Facebook–does things?
Teams may be too big to fail, but video calling technology alone is not going to guarantee them workplace collaboration success.
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