Lightweight and easy collaboration tool with an uncertain future.
Skype for Business (SFB) is a business-focused app that allows you to instant message, phone and video call, screen share, host and record meetings, and generally collaborate with your colleagues. If you’ve ever used Microsoft Lync, then you’re in luck – Lync was rebranded to Skype for Business in 2015, refining Lync’s core functionalities ever since.
Please note this is a separate product from Skype for consumers. It’s an important distinction to make since SFB should not be viewed as a phone replacement or VOIP Service. It cannot make emergency phone calls. It serves as a lightweight collaboration tool. Any business using the Microsoft ecosystem, particularly small businesses, should take a look at SFB. It seamlessly integrates with Outlook from where you can create Skype meetings and populate your contact list. It offers a variety of plan options at attractive prices, though making sense of that spider web proves difficult (see here). Last but not least, Microsoft has already announced that Teams will be replacing SFB and when sunset occurs, it isn't clear.
An enjoyable experience
Simplicity is its strength
At its core, SFB allows you to select another SFB user from a contact list and from there, start an instant message conversation, make a call (video if you have that capability), or share your screen. Additional features build from that basic premise.
Easy learning curve and intuitive UI
The application tucks toward the side of your screen, and goes for the tall and skinny look. Your name falls at the top along with your picture, availability status (available, away, do not disturb, etc.), and a personal message for your contacts to see if you choose to write one. Below that sit four icons across the menu – Contacts, Conversations, Meetings, Settings. These determine what you see in the body of the application. It defaults to Contacts, which means most of the time you’ll be looking at your contact list when the app is open. Your contacts each have a picture, availability status, and video capability indication. Managers can check on the idle time of their employees as SFB shows a timestamp for how long someone has been away from their computer.
From there go about your usual use case. Double click on your colleague’s icon and up comes the conversation window. More icons appear allowing you to make a call, share your screen, or send a file. You can also find a “+” icon on the upper right to expand this conversation to more people. Invite the whole office, if you'd like! Some subscription levels allow up to 250 people in a conversation.
The SFB plug-in for Outlook rocks. Once installed, all you need to schedule a Skype meeting from Outlook is to make a new meeting, click on the SFB icon plug-in, and it auto populates your conference information in the body of the meeting. Add your attendees, an agenda, and pick a time, and you are off to your next game of conference call bingo.
Flexibility for including non-SFB users to your meetings and calls help SFB stand-out as a great tool for collaboration. When invited to a SFB meeting, non-SFB users have the ability to download the SFB Web App to their browser. The app allows for HD video conferencing, IM in meetings, presentation viewing, desktop sharing, whiteboard, lobby, and presenter access controls. The app also enables PC-based audio and video. The only drawback is that other SFB functionalities like viewing a user’s presence or contact information are unavailable.
Where can you run this program?
Luckily, Microsoft serves up a free client that you can try. According to the website, the free basic client provides presence, instant messaging, and conferencing features. If you are licensed for Office 365 ProPlus, Office 365 Enterprise E3 and Office 365 Enterprise E4, you are also licensed for the full Skype for Business Windows desktop client, which includes additional features including advanced telephone support, archiving, and compliance features.
Is there a better alternative?
Microsoft has made it clear that Teams will replace SFB but gives no clear date when the service in question will shut down. While the UI of SFB is preferable, Teams has some clear advantages when it comes to features, specially for larger organizations. Persistent chat (think chat rooms) and greater integration with other Microsoft Office suite products is one advantage of Teams. It’s also the future-proof choice given more development is unlikely with SFB.
Slack is another very popular alternative. It has one of the best UIs in the business; mass adoption so you’re bound to find others in your organization that have some experience with it; and a target painted on its back: Microsoft developed Teams to compete with it.
Small businesses should take a hard look at SFB for their communication needs. That is, if they don’t already subscribe to Office 365 which bundles it. Large businesses may want the more robust features of full-fledged VOIP services or Teams. Its simplicity is its forte. Microsoft Teams – the replacement for SFB – can appear cluttered and less intuitive, albeit more capable.
Should you download?
Does your office participate in the modern, remote-work era where it might need IM, video calling, and teleconferencing? Does it use Microsoft products? If so, it probably already has SFB and if not, the free version lies a few clicks away. So, go for it.
- Easy to use
- Has most features you'd want in a collaboration tool
- Being phased out in favor of Teams
- Hard to understand pricing and options