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Microsoft Launches Previews for 3 Skype for Business Features

Microsoft on Wednesday kicked off technical preview programs for three new Skype for Business features for Office 365.

The three new features are "Skype Meeting Broadcast," "PSTN Conferencing" and "Cloud PBX with PSTN Calling," according to Microsoft's announcement. Those interested in participating in the technical previews must be subscribed to the "Office 365 enterprise plan or Skype for Business Plan 2."

"Preview" essentially means "beta." "General availability" is the term Microsoft uses to signal commercially ready products. The general availability release of these three features is expected occur "before the end of this year," Microsoft's announcement indicated.

Even though Skype for Business is available as a server and a service, not all of the features are fully baked yet.

The first feature, Skype Meeting Broadcast, is designed to help organizations create large webinar-type meetings. Skype Meeting Broadcast can support online meetings of "up to 10,000 people." A single person can set up such meetings, as demonstrated in this Microsoft-produced video. They can turn on social media interactions for participants (either Yammer conversations or Bing Pulse ratings). Data about meeting participants can be downloaded as a CSV file to generate charts for audience analysis. The Skype Meeting Broadcast preview is currently available for Office 365 subscribers worldwide.

Microsoft also announced previews that help with public switched telephone network (PSTN) connections. The PSTN Conferencing feature lets participants join conferences via mobile phones or land line phones. It's only available right now for testing by U.S. Office 365 subscribers, though.

The Cloud PBX with PSTN Calling feature lets Office 365 subscribers use the Skype for Business client to "make and receive traditional phone calls." It also delivers typical voice-calling features, such as "hold, resume, forward and transfer." It can only be tested by U.S. Office 365 subscribers at this time, but Microsoft plans to roll out a finished product worldwide "later this year."

Microsoft's announcement also gave a progress report about Skype for Business integration with the Azure ExpressRoute service. That service integration will be available for Office 365 Skype for Business subscribers "later this year," the announcement indicated. ExpressRoute is a partner offering that provides direct private Internet connections to Microsoft's cloud-based services. It's offered by Microsoft partners such as "AT&T, BT, Colt, Equinix, Level 3 Communications, Orange Business Services, TATA Communications, Telstra, Verizon and Vodafone."

Skype for Business is Microsoft's unified communications product, offering a combination of instant messaging, videoconferencing, presence and voice-over-IP (VoIP) communications for organizations, although the "enterprise voice" component has tended to lag. Microsoft offers Skype for Business as either an Office 365 service or as a premises-installed server. There's also a consumer-grade Skype service operated by Microsoft.

Microsoft released Skype for Business Server 2015 in May, but the Office 365 version tends to get the improvements faster than the server product. While Wednesday's announcement was about features coming to Office 365 subscribers, it's not clear when the server version of the product might get those capabilities.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.