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At Ignite 2021, beyond spotlight features like Loop and Context IQ, Microsoft announced enhancements to services across its Microsoft 365 product families. A new JavaScript API in Microsoft Excel allows developers to create custom data types, and Microsoft Forms Collection — which allows customers to manage an archive of forms — has reached generally available. There’s also an upgraded presentation recording experience in Microsoft PowerPoint and Smart Alerts, an Outlook capability that enables developers to validate content before a user sends an email or appointment.

Millions of employees have transitioned to remote or hybrid work — either permanently or temporarily — during the pandemic. Against this backdrop, organizations have increased investments in project management software to support collaboration in the absence of physical workspaces. The worldwide market for social software and collaboration in the workplace is expected to grow from an estimated $2.7 billion in 2018 to $4.8 billion by 2023, nearly doubling in size, according to Gartner.

Teams

On the Teams side, Teams Connect — Microsoft’s answer to Slack Connect, which similarly allows users to chat with people outside their organizations in shared channels — will be updated in preview starting early 2022 to allow users to (1) schedule a shared channel meeting, (2) use Microsoft apps, and (3) share each channel with up to 50 teams and unlimited organizations. With cross-tenant access settings in Azure AD, admins will be able to configure specific privacy relationships for external collaboration with different enterprise organizations.

Available by the end of 2021, Chat with Teams personal account users — a new capability — will “extend collaboration support by enabling Teams users to chat with team members outside their work network with a Teams personal account,” Microsoft says. With the enhanced Chat with Teams, customers will be able to invite any Teams user to a chat using an email address or phone number.

With any luck, the upgraded Chat with Teams will avoid befalling the same fate as the expanded Slack Connect at its debut. In March, Slack rolled back a feature that let anyone in the world with a paid Slack account send a direct message request to other Slack users — even if they didn’t have a paid account. While Connect direct messages were opt-in, users making the invitations could include a message of up to 560 characters to recipients, which Slack emailed to the them. Users who received abusive and threatening messages couldn’t easily block specific senders because Slack sent the notifications from a generalized inbox.

For its part, Microsoft says that the Chat with Teams experience will “remain within the security and compliance policies [and] boundaries of [organizations.]”

Teams Rooms

In 2019, Skype Room Systems, Microsoft’s multivendor conference room control solution, was rebranded as Microsoft Teams Rooms with capabilities aimed at simplifying in-person meetings. New features include the expansion of direct guest join to BlueJeans and GoToMeeting (expected in the first half of 2022), which allows Teams users to join meetings hosted on other meeting platforms from a Teams Room. By 2022, Teams Rooms customers will be able to manage Surface Hubs from the Teams admin center alongside other Teams devices, as well as use compatible Teams panels to check into a room, see occupancy analytics, and set the room to release if no one’s checked out after a certain amount of time.

Teams apps and chat

In other Teams news, new apps from partners including Atlassian’s Jira Cloud and SAP Sales & Service Core will enable Teams users to engage “more collaboratively” across chat, channels, and meetings. Software-as-a-service (SaaS) apps using Teams components can embed functionality like chat connectivity in Dynamics 365 and Power Apps, while Azure Communications Services Teams interoperability — which can be used to build apps that interact with Teams — will soon be available.

Several improvements in the Teams admin center make it easier to navigate and simplify IT management, according to Microsoft. Now, admins can search for any function and use the redesigned Teams App store — launching later this month — along with an app discovery tool to view apps by category, see additional app details, and gain a streamlined ability for users to request apps.

Other IT management features now in preview include a new dashboard with customizable views of device usage metrics with insights, troubleshooting tips, suggested actions, proactive alerts, and the ability to download and share reports. A new workspace view provides data for all devices in a specific physical location, as all the Teams display in a particular building. And priority account notification enables IT admins to specify priority users, so they can monitor experiences with device alerts and post-call quality metrics.

For users, there are new features like “chat with self” (which enables them to send themselves a message) and a “chat density” feature that lets users customize the number of chat messages they see on the screen. Its new Compact Mode fits 50% more messages on the screen compared with before. Elsewhere, Teams now features over 800 3D emojis and the ability to delay the delivery of messages until a specific time, as well as a new search results UI. The upgrades will roll out between now and early 2022.

Webinars and events

In tow with the other Teams updates are webinar- and events-focused features including virtual green room (available in preview in early 2022), which enables organizers and presenters to socialize, monitor the chat and Q&A, manage attendee settings, and share content before the event starts. Virtual green room arrives alongside enhanced controls for managing what attendees see during an event (available by the end of the year), and a Q&A set of functions (in preview this month) that let organizers and presenters mark best answers, filter responses, moderate, dismiss questions, and pin posts, such as a welcome message.

Co-organizer (generally available by the end of the year) allows an event organizer to assign up to ten different co-organizers, who have the same capabilities and permissions as the organizer. As for isolated audio feed (in preview this month), it enables producers to create an audio mix using isolated feeds from each individual.

In a related development, events, and hospitality management platform Cvent is now integrated with Teams, enabling customers to use it to manage the event lifecycle — including registration and agenda management.

API and more

The latest JavaScript API for Microsoft Office, generally available in Microsoft Excel later this month, gives developers the ability to create their own custom data types including images, entities, and formatted number values. Users will be able to build their own add-ins and extend previously existing ones to capitalize on data types, resulting in what Microsoft calls “a more integrated experience within Excel.”

The aforementioned Forms Collection, which is also making its debut today, allows customers to create and manage an online archive for their forms and quizzes in Microsoft Forms without leaving the site. As for Smart Alerts (in preview), it can be used in conjunction with event-based add-in extensions to perform logic while users accomplish tasks in Outlook, like creating or replying to emails.

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