Skype for Business will give businesses Surface Hub-like collaboration on a budget

New updates from Microsoft are aimed at helping companies collaborate remotely for less money

Microsoft wants to help businesses bring their meeting rooms into the future of videoconferencing without spending a whole lot of dough. That's why it announced two new Skype for Business initiatives aimed at getting existing technology connected to its work communications service.

The first, codenamed Project Rigel, is aimed at helping companies turn meeting rooms into videoconferencing centers able to host interactive Skype meetings, without having to shell out thousands of dollars per room for a Surface Hub collaboration display. 

Microsoft's Surface Hub gives a company a Skype Meeting device in a compact package, but it's expensive. The Hub packs a display, multiple cameras, microphones and a touchscreen into one package that integrates with Skype for Business to host meetings that can include participants both in the room and far away.

It's a cool piece of technology but comes with a commensurate price tag -- the cheap version of the Surface Hub costs $9,000 per device, while the more expensive 84-inch display costs a shocking $22,000.

Using Project Rigel, companies can link together a bunch of disparate hardware to create a similar experience. Microsoft has envisioned that companies will use a Windows 10 tablet to control devices certified to work with Rigel, including Polycom phones and Logitech cameras. 

Those devices, coupled with a display or projector, will make up the core of a Rigel system. Logitech is even working on a "smart dock" that will connect all the devices together. All told, building out a Rigel system should be cheaper than shelling out for a set of Surface Hubs, which means companies with a lot of meeting rooms will have an easier time connecting them to Skype for Business. 

Polycom is also working with Microsoft to connect meeting rooms with an existing videoconferencing system to Skype for Business, with that functionality coming in the second half of this year. The company's RealPresence Group Series products will add integration with Office 365 to make the experience consistent with the Skype meeting experience overall. The company is also building a service to allow systems from both Polycom and Cisco connect to Skype for Business using a service hosted in Microsoft's cloud. 

The company is also building a service to allow systems from both Polycom and Cisco connect to Skype for Business using a service hosted in Microsoft's cloud. 

In addition to those improvements, Microsoft also announced the expansion of Skype for Business's PSTN Calling feature outside the U.S. Starting in May, customers in the U.K. will be able to register for a beta test of the feature, which will allow them to try out features including acquiring numbers on the public telephone network through Skype for Business. 

The new initiatives are part of Microsoft's continuing push to improve its work communication product in the face of tight competition from several sources. It's not only competing with cloud telephony providers, but also with collaborative chat apps like Slack and videoconferencing solutions from companies like Citrix. 

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Blair Hanley Frank

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