What is old is new again. You may have heard that expression. Well, it might apply to Microsoft Business Voice. Yes, Business Voice is a “repackaging” of existing Microsoft 365 subscriptions. But there may also be a pony in there. That is the tease. For now, read on.
A Brief History of Voice
I spent twenty years in the voice and data communications business. I could go on for a while, but I will spare you the torture. Allow me to highlight a few points.
- Sometime in the 1970s phone systems went from analog to digital. If you had a digital phone system to sell, digital was a breakthrough innovation. If you were still selling analog, digital was just a gimmick to be ignored.
- The 1990s saw (besides those annoying Tomagotchi pets) people beginning to wonder: if voice was just a digital bit stream, couldn’t it be manipulated by computers, like anything else? Enter the rise of Voice over IP (VoIP) and IP-based phone systems.
- Microsoft got into the mix. They introduced (this is just a partial list) Lync Communications Server, Skype for Business Enterprise Voice, Teams Phone System, and now Teams Business Voice. Stir together server and online variants of each and you have a more complete view of the complexity.
Microsoft rolled out Business Voice last year. I attended some of the launch events. I asked one question: what is different here, compared to the “Enterprise” voice subscriptions? Cue embarrassed hemming and hawing. I am happy to say that now I understand the difference. It is not about technology as much as it is marketing. And by “marketing” I mean, packaging and segmentation.
Microsoft Business Voice Explained
Allow me to start by explaining what you need to implement a Microsoft telephony solution. You need three things, at a minimum.
1. A subscription that provides phone system features. Transfer, hold, conference, forwarding and the like.
2. A calling plan. A bundle of minutes you can use to make phone calls. If you have a mobile phone, you understand this idea.
3. An audioconferencing plan. This includes dial-in numbers and usage minutes. If you want to offer participants a way to dial into your audio or video conference, you need an audio conferencing plan.
When Microsoft first introduced Teams Calling, they branded these three elements as:
- Teams Phone System (the package of phone system features)
- North America or North America + International Calling Plan (the bundles of minutes)
- Audio Conferencing (dial-in numbers and minutes)
If you had (or have) an Office 365 or Microsoft 365 E3 plan, you could purchase these other subscriptions “a la carte” and add them to your E3 plan to provide voice calling. (Aside: here I am referring to calling a public telephone number, like the local pizza joint. You do not need anything beyond Teams to call others via the Internet.)
So, why did Microsoft introduce Business Voice? I see two main reasons.
First, “Business” and “Enterprise” have specific meanings in the Microsoft world.
- Business=an organization with no more than 300 users. Think, Small and Mid-sized Business (SMB).
- Enterprise=an organization of unlimited size.
Second, Microsoft figured (rightly) that SMB customers favor simpler, “one size fits all” services. Anything Microsoft could do to simplify the ordering, managing, installation and support of telephony would be welcome news for SMB customers.
Understand Your Upgrade Options
What do you get with Business Voice? In short, you get what you need to set up a Teams-based phone system. You get the phone system features, a calling plan (differs by country) and audio conferencing. A Business Voice subscription is all most organizations will need to add telephony to their existing Office 365/Microsoft 365 subscription. (And yes, if you have an E3 subscription, you can add Business Voice. Your do not have to change to a “Business” subscription.)
Optionally, you can get to the same place by upgrading your Office 365 E3 subscription to an E5 subscription. (We have been encouraging organizations to do this, primarily because the E5 subscription has some valuable security services.) From a subscription cost viewpoint, there is almost no difference in adding Business Voice to an Office 365 E3 subscription vs. upgrading to an Office 365 E5 subscription. If you want to assure yourself you have minimized your subscription expense, add on the Business Voice. If you prefer not to keep track of multiple subscriptions, upgrade to E5.
The Business Voice Hidden Gem
Up to now, most of the difference between Business Voice and the erstwhile Enterprise Voice plans was Marketing—simpler methods to understand and order the subscription. There is, however, one potentially valuable difference. It has to do with installation and setup of Business Voice.
For IT Managers, any voice system can seem a little odd, in that there is a large amount of work needed to engineer and configure the system. (This is why, back in the day, we used to say, “audio is easy, voice is hard.”) The work required does not change too much for smaller vs. larger phone systems. I have seen more than one Phone System opportunity evaporate because the customer felt there was just too much planning needed.
This installation and setup tool is a welcome addition. If (like most customers) you have standard phone system needs—nothing more complicated than a hunt group or auto attendant—then the tool is going to work to get your Business Voice system up and running. There will be some tweaking needed beyond that, but the installation and setup tool takes much of the pain out of setting up a Business Voice system. The tool does not make number porting any easier—bureaucracies are involved—but the tool will allow you and your telephony partner get things going more rapidly.
As we continue our COVID-driven digital transformation and look to adapt our phone systems for new hybrid work environments, keep Business Voice under consideration as an option for cloud-based, no-hassle telephony.