Microsoft wants to make is easier and cheaper for small business users to dive into teleconferencing and conduct virtual meetings with the company's new free Skype Meetings product, announced July 5.
Microsoft has long offered businesses the ability to host high-definition video meetings in Lync, later renamed Skype for Business. Last year, the company pushed Skype meetings to new heights with a new Skype Meeting Broadcast option, allowing enterprises to turn their virtual gatherings into online town halls that can reach up to 10,000 people over the Internet.
Today, Microsoft is targeting a much smaller audience, namely entrepreneurs and small business teams in the United States.
Skype Meetings is available now at no cost to anyone with a business email address, provided their organization isn't already paying for an Office 365 subscription, announced Andrew Sinclair, general manager for Microsoft Skype for Business, in a July 5 announcement. For the first 60 days, Skype Meetings will support up to 10 attendees. After the trial period is over, that number drops to three users.
In addition to discussing business matters using high-definition video and real-time audio, "participants can IM, share their screen or PowerPoint presentation or use the laser pointer and whiteboard features to make it more engaging and productive," said Sinclair. "The meeting organizer also gets professional meeting controls such as the ability to mute the audience in order to be heard."
Organizers can quickly set up meetings by using the product's Web interface to generate a personalized URL. Scheduling options include Outlook and Google Calendar. Once the link is shared, users can attend by clicking or tapping it on any device. According to Sinclair, Skype Meetings will work on practically any PC, smartphone or tablet with a Web browser, microphone, camera and speaker.
Skype Meetings includes a subset of the functionality included in Office 365 business plans that include Skype for Business. These organizations can convene meetings with up to 250 people, record the proceedings, poll attendees and preside over Q&A sessions, among other advanced functionality.
Of course, Microsoft isn't the only company endeavoring to make teleconferencing a small business technology staple.
In May, Cisco revealed that it was changing course with WebEx, the company's online meeting service. Video capabilities, once a paid extra, is now being included with WebEx Meeting Center at no extra cost. "What we wanted to do is make video collaboration part of every WebEx experience," Ross Daniels, senior director and Collaboration Marketing leader at Cisco, told eWEEK's Jeffrey Burt at the time.
Despite these moves, not all office workers may be ready to step in front of the camera.
According to a recent survey of 230 U.S. employees conducted by West Unified Communications, most employees have attended a Webcast (71 percent). Of those, the majority felt more engaged during the gathering because they could see the speaker.
But for most attendees, being seen is another matter altogether. Comparatively few employees have hosted a Webcast (17 percent), and of those who have, 59 percent said they felt apprehensive in the virtual spotlight.