Tag Archives: Features of Skype

The Fate of New Acquisitions: Whither or Wither?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I’m writing this on a Windows PC using a great piece of Microsoft software called Windows Live Writer. And that’s only part of the problem.

As you no doubt know, Microsoft have announced they bought Skype, the Internet telephony company, for $8.5 billion. You’ll have to look under a lot of stones to find someone who thinks this is a good deal for Microsoft. Skype made $20 million last year on revenue of $860 million, posting a net loss of $69 million because of interest expenses. In short, this is not a company about to fill Microsoft’s coffers with dosh.

Whenever a big company goes on a buying spree I reach for my gun and head for the hills. These things never end well. A few weeks back we heard about Cisco buying and then killing Flip, those great little pocket cameras so simple to use people actually use them. I used to keep a list of these acquisitions, because I naively used to think that a big company buying a smaller one was a happy ending. I’ve nearly always been proved wrong.

Yahoo bought a browser bookmarking service called delicious that they parked in a siding until eventually selling it, a few weeks back, to someone who actually seems to understand the product. In fact a fun game is to quiz Yahoo PR people about the state of their company’s lesser known products and count how many “I’ll have to get back to you on that one” responses. I’ll give you a head start: Ask about Konfabulator, a sort of desktop widgets program which was excellent, but has quietly withered on the Yahoo vine. The developer’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2007.

Yahoo are probably the most egregious offenders but everyone does it. Google boughtJaiku, a twitter-like service that was better than twitter, but have done precisely nothing with it. Nokia bought dopplr, a social networking service for people who travel, and have done precisely nothing with it. (Product blog hasn’t been updated since September 30 2009, two days after Nokia bought it.)

So why do it? Buying companies makes people money, somewhere in the chain. It disguises ineptitude, or it is what is called a defensive play: I’ll buy it so you can’t.

The Skype deal neatly illustrates Microsoft’s problem is a simple one: It lacks direction. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do so it creates a new brand, a new product, a new division—often out of an old one. The product I’m writing this on is part of (frankly the only good part of) the Windows Live array of products—whatever that is; I’ve never quite figured that part out. (Type live.com into your browser and something different seems to happen each time; now it’s a sort of stream of consciousness page that’s more of a stew of Microsoft’s various offerings. ) Windows Live Writer was part of a product Microsoft bought called Onfolio; it has survived, somehow, though few people seem to know about it outside a very narrow group of enthusiasts.

And here’s the rub. Microsoft has no idea what to do with all these products it spews out or inherits, so it forgets about them. Most of you know that Hotmail and Bing are Microsoft products. But how about Lync? Or Kin? Anyone remember Zune? And what is the difference between Windows Live and Windows Live Essentials, for example? Or Windows Messenger, Office Communicator, Windows Live Messenger and MSN Messenger? Or Sync Center, Live Mesh, SkyDrive, FolderShare and Live Sync?

No, I’m not sure either.

Go to Windowsmarketplace.com and you’ll be told that “Windows Marketplace has transitioned from an ecommerce site to a reference site.” Confused yet? Go togetpivot.com, the website of what was billed a year or so back as “the most ambitious thing to come out of Live Labs” and you’ll get directed to, er, bing.com. Live Labs itself was disbanded a few months later. Now old links to Live Labs go to bing.com, which was where those members of the team ended up that didn’t quit. Out of the 14 projects initiated by the lab counted on Wikipedia, all but five are dead. Of those, only a couple seemed to still have any life in them.

When a company diverts a link from one of its own press releases barely a year old to, effectively, nowhere, it’s a pretty good sign that’s where the vision has gone too. This was after all Microsoft’s big research team—at least the most exciting one (Microsoft spends about $9 billion per year on R&D, according to Jean-Louis Gassée, a French analyst.) Microsoft products seem to get lost in a labyrinth of confusing branding, branching and segmentation tunnels, confusing and demoralizing the user to the degree they throw up their hands and go buy a Mac.

Not I. I know about Microsoft products because I use them. A lot. And the more I usemy Mac the more impressed I am with parts of Windows 7.  The problems with the operating system could be fixed in an afternoon: Watch a couple of users try it out and then ask them what was missing. Build those bits into a new version, ditch the trash and you’re good to go. (Some clues: something like iPhoto but better than Photo Gallery for handling photos. Something like iMovie but not Movie Maker. Apple’s products all come pre-installed. Microsoft’s are a confusing, lengthy and intrusive download and reboot away. Oh, and something half way between Microsoft Word ($200 or thereabouts) and the freebie WordPad; Apple’s equivalent Pages costs $20. It’s not as good as Word, but it’s a 10th the price.)

So where is Skype going to fit into all this? Well, the problems start with Skype itself. Since eBay bought it in 2005 it has been something of an orphan, passed around with little idea of what its future might be. It wasn’t always thus. I drank the Kool-Aid back in 2005, and thought like others it was going to change the way we communicated and did business online. I joined the vision of a world where everyone from clairvoyants to business consultants (ok, that’s not such a wide swathe) would offer services over Skype. Audio, text, video, you name it.

That hasn’t happened. For most people it is just a way to avoid paying rip-off phone charges and do the odd video call. Everything else is marginal. The most recent Extra—the add-ons that were supposed to be part of this new Skype ecosystem–is dated January 2010 and that’s just an update on an old program. One guy I interviewed in 2005 had set up a network of 30,000 experts in 50 countries on a website called Jyve.com that was going to piggyback this new Skype-connected world. He’s nowhere to be found now and Jyve.com is an empty page.

eBay didn’t get it, of course, but that’s only part of the story. About a year ago I wrote a piece calling on Skype to realize that it was at heart the world’s most effective social network tool. I wrote:

If Skype dovetailed with Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn it could position itself at the heart of social media. After all, it’s probably the only application that most Internet users have installed, loaded and [have] active on their computer. Unlike Facebook et al, Skype is there, right in the moment. It’s the ultimate presence app.

Indeed, it’s much more like an instant Rolodex (remember those?) than all the other networking services we use. If I want to contact someone the first place I check is Skype—if they’re online, what’s the point of contacting them any other way?

In other words, Skype offers a granularity that other social networking tools don’t: Not only is it comfortable with one to all (the status update message), it’s also comfortable with the one to several (add people to a chat or call), it’s also great at instantly connecting one on one. You can even reach people offline via it, if they have call forwarding enable, or you have their SMS details stored.

No other social network offers that.

Skype sits on every computer (and most smartphones.) By definition all the people the user is connected to are people he wants to actually communicate with—rather than just ‘friending’ or ‘ ‘connecting to’. It’s an easier way to share stuff—photos, files etc–and it’s now pretty easy to set up groups and stuff (In Afghanistan we used it as a way to share security updates; people could see the information in real time or catch up on messages when they got online. In Singapore I use it to talk to my students via teams and the whole class.)

Unfortunately Skype may have read my piece, or they may not. Either way, they half went down this road by trying to throw in lots of things that people didn’t need—including an annoying Firefox extension that turned every number on a webpage into a phone number, including bank accounts. Now Skype is so big and clunky it crashes on my Android phone and my Windows computer.

But in a perfect world Skype works. It’s simple. For many people it’s a telephone. For others it’s a presence indicator: I’m online, I’m not. My computer is connected to the internet (green button showing) or there’s a problem with the connection (grey downer button showing). For some people it’s become a very useful way to organize teleconferences (though don’t talk to my colleagues on an Indonesia project about this; they spend hours trying to get a connection going.)

Skype wasn’t first but it worked better than others, which is why everyone has a Skype account, and why asking for someone’s Skype ID is almost as natural as telling asking for their email address.

But unfortunately I’m not sanguine about a Microsoft/Skype future. Either they integrate the technology behind it into their other smorgasbord of products, in which case you wonder why they didn’t develop the technology themselves, or they leave it as it is. Either way it’s not good: While analysts have focused on how Skype might fit into Microsoft’s non-PC products like Kinect and Xbox, it’s hard to imagine that Microsoft won’t try to shoehorn Skype users into one of its misbegotten sub-brands, losing non-Windows users along the way.

Skype Messenger anyone? Live Skype? Skype Office? Skype Explorer? I shudder to think what will happen. I may be wrong—I’ve been plenty wrong about Skype before—but my fear is of a Skype that gets as clunky and overloaded as MSN Messenger, as bewildering as the Live family of products, as impossible to separate from other Microsoft products as Microsoft Word, as doomed as Outlook Express and anything from the Live Labs mob.

I do hope I’m wrong because of all the networks I have on my computer and cellphone, Skype is still the one I actually need. Skype: whither or wither?

The Skype Revolution Wears Thin

What’s going on over at Skype? The one thing that I felt was really useful with the service, apart from all the free chats, was their Skype In service, allowing you to have one phone number wherever you were. You could set it up to forward to any phone on the planet, or your Skype account, or to your Skype voicemail, and it worked great. Now it’s gone.

Well, not gone, but they’ve had to change some of their numbers. This is the message I just received from them:

We’re very sorry to tell you that we have to change your SkypeIn number. As some of you may know, we get SkypeIn numbers from a variety of telecoms suppliers. Unfortunately, we have to return some of the 0207 SkypeIn numbers to one of our suppliers of London numbers.

This means your number will stop working from December 20th 2007. We realise the inconvenience this will cause you, and sincerely apologise.

That’s less than a month away. How on earth can you go around the world telling every Tom, Dick and Auntie Phyllis you’ve ever given your “lifetime” number to that it’s changed in that time? And just before Christmas, to boot!

To soften the blow Skype have given people affected “a new SkypeIn number and voicemail – free for 12 months on us – to thank you for your patience and to help make the changeover as painless as possible for you.” 

Nice thought, and would help, except the voucher doesn’t work. At least not for me. Just keep getting an “invalid voucher” message. So more pain and delay. 

I still talk about the Skype Revolution, where ordinary Joes can suddenly increase their tech knowledge and stay in touch with people more easily than ever before, but I’m beginning to wonder whether it isn’t time for someone smarter, quicker and better organized to take over the revolution.

Update: I’ve heard from Merje Järv- Griffiths of Skype, who offers this extra information on the dropped numbers:

As you know, Skype obtains SkypeIn numbers from a variety of telecoms suppliers.  The London-based SkypeIn numbers in question came from one of these telecoms suppliers. We spent months in discussions with a telecoms supplier to see if we could keep the SkypeIn numbers we rented from them, confident that the issue could be resolved. Hence the somewhat late notice to our users — we never thought things would get this far, given the time and effort put into resolving the situation.

Unfortunately, we have to return some of our 0207 numbers so we’re asking our SkypeIn users who are affected to change their London-based SkypeIn number.

And if any of you are having the same problems I had in redeeming the voucher, try this.

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Phones Aren’t About Telephony

Skype is a powerful tool because it’s found its way into the hands of people who need it most — ordinary folk. Now it and the companies that make devices to use Skype on need to understand that it’s not about telephony anymore, if it ever was. It’s about two or more people sharing each others’ presence. Now we need the products to make that happen.

I was chatting with someone last night, a gent in his early 60s from LA, who should have retired but decided to take on one more project, in Hong Kong. He was in two minds about it because it would mean a year away from his wife, but he was persuaded because he knew Skype would keep him in touch. Of course it could be any VoIP tool, but the point here is that Skype was the first to cross the threshold into this market because it was easier (and worked better) than all the others at the time. Now the guy can chat with his wife every night and being apart is bearable and not making him too poor.

But he was still using it as a phone: Call the other person up, chat and then hang up. Had he ever thought about just leaving the line open, I asked him? Why would I do that? he replied. Because it won’t cost you anything, and then you’ll hear the sounds of home, which in a way is what you’re really missing. Your wife banging around in the kitchen, the kids arguing, a dog barking, the sound of the wood pigeon in the garden (OK, that’s more my memory of home than his. Not sure they have wood pigeons in LA.)

I then realised that actually there would be a great line of products here. Wireless devices that you could place around the house, outside, some that are just microphones picking up sound, and others that also serve as speakerphones, so his wife can just wander around and, when she wants to, chat as well. Of course, a Bluetooth headset might do the trick, and maybe there are some wireless handsets that might work. I’ve done a quick search and not found any obvious candidates. Most seem to assume you want to use Skype as a phone. But Skype is not really about phones anymore. It’s about presence — on one side, showing other people whether you’re available, etc, and on the other, allowing you to teleport yourself to the person you’re with without the old restrictions of the phone: cost, the structured nature of phone conversation, having to press a device to your ear.

Manufacturers, it’s true, are beginning to wake up to the idea that we don’t use our devices in the way, or the place, they’re designed for. Take the percushion pillow phone, for example, which finally solves that problem of trying to have a conversation with someone while you’re trying to get to sleep. That’s a good start. Now lets see devices that use sound and vision to make anyone, including my new homesick friend, to really feel they’re home.

When Services Go Pro, Reach for Your Gun

Alarming and confusing news and views concerning Skype’s announcement of its new pricing strategy. Here’s a summary.

Key elements trumpeted in Skype’s press release (the most detailed information is here, courtesy of SkypeJournal):

  • Premium subscription package called Skype Pro, which includes free Skype Voicemail (€15 previously) and €30 off a SkypeIn number (previously €30). Cost: €2 per month
  • Removes per minute charges for SkypeOut calls (i.e. calls to ordinary phones) so long as they’re landlines and to the same country you’re in at the time of calling. I.e: unlimited calling, so long as it’s not to mobile phones.
  • Every SkypeOut (and I think SkypeIn) call, whether it’s to voicemail or not, incurs a separate connection fee of 0.039 Euro, excl VAT (5 U.S. cents). (This does not apply to existing unlimited calling plans if you’re calling within your specific country.)
  • Some SkypeOut destinations have been reduced (about seven, including Malaysia) for Skype Pro users to the Global Rate of 1.7 cents per minute).

Skype claims this option “offers our users more for less because they can buy additional Skype paid for products but for a smaller cost”. The service will be phased in from now in Europe, and, for now, will be available alongside the traditional service. (For Asian readers, Hong kong, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Australia are next.)

What does this mean for you? Well, of course it depends on what kind of user you are, and where you’re calling.

  • You’re going to be paying more per call than you were before, because of the connection fee.
  • If you’re an international caller, it’s going to be harder to calculate your potential savings/losses. I must confess I’m still trying to figure this out.
  • Jean Mercier, based in Belgium, has done some sums on his calling habits, and concludes that “occasional SkypeOut users will pay for the heavy SkypeOut users”. In other words, if you don’t use it a lot, you’ll end up paying more than you would before. HIs conclusion: “I really am astounded, and not in a positive way!”
  • Olga Kharif at BusinessWeek says it’s part of general raising of VOIP rates. “Sure, they need to find a way to make money. But I think raising prices is a big mistake. In the past, users switched to VoIP because it was the cheapest calling option around. When it’s no longer that, customers might no longer hurry to abandon their traditional telecom services providers for upstarts.”
  • Phil Wolff of SkypeJournal says you’ll be better off if you SkypeOut an average 4.3 minutes per day, or a couple of hours per month. This does not seem to include the connection fee in the calculation, however, and may not be relevant for international calls. I’m checking this with Phil.
  • For Paul Kapustka of GigaOM, the reasons behind the move are simple: Skype is in trouble. “Just add some cash to the bottom line, quickly! For customers, the question is — do you want eBay to be your phone company?”
  • PhoneBoy says that “what they are really doing is raising the price”.

My conclusions: Skype has been a revolution for a lot of my readers and friends who aren’t usually all that enamoured of technology. They’ve bought a headset, got a cable connection, installed the software, bought some credits, all because of the savings Skype offers. Many of them also enjoy the benefits of being online in a buddy list.

But what if Skype is no longer the cheapest option? Or if they feel they’re being lied to by press releases that are less than forthcoming about the real deal? Will they turn their newfound confidence in technology to switch to something cheaper and take all their buddies with them?

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Skype SMS’ Teething Problems

You’ve probably all heard of Skype’s new SMS service, which is very cool. If you have a Skype-Out account, you can send SMS messages to cellphones and, if you register you cellphone number with Skype, the recipients can reply to you on your mobile phone. Great idea. Only problem: It doesn’t work.

Well, it does work, but not always. At least one cellular operator doesn’t seem to pass the messages on. That wouldn’t be a problem, except that Skype says that the message has been delivered, and charges you for it. Teething troubles, I guess, but still a nuisance, if you’re counting your Skype pennies. (This experiment has so far set me back €0,44. Money that has gone forever. Forever.) Other folk are reporting similar problems, although it doesn’t sound widespread.

Skype’s technical people say you should raise a help ticket if this happens to you. The only problem is: How do you know that it doesn’t get through? An interesting conundrum as Skype ventures into new waters. Consider: Cellular SMS supports a service which allows you to receive notification of the arrival of your message; Skype users can tell whether other Skype members are online and available. But now you can send an SMS to someone, unless the pending/delivered/failed notification feature works properly, all those presence/delivery indicators are out the window.

A weird disjuncture, given that Skype is best used for non-local calls. Skype is all about reaching beyond the tyranny of long distance communication costs. And the same is true of Skype SMS, I suspect, especially in those places where SMS is very cheap. Here in Indonesia, for example, cellular SMS to an Indonesian phone costs 250 rupiah, or 3 US cents. A Skype SMS costs 14 US cents. No one is going to send a Skype SMS to someone locally if that kind of price difference exists. So Skype SMS might best work if you want to communicate with someone who is not at their computer, or doesn’t have Skype (or doesn’t have a computer) but doesn’t live in your zone. Not a bad niche. But the problem still remains: If SMS via Skype is really going to kick in, reliability is going to be an issue. Who is going to use the service if they have no way of knowing whether their messages landed?

Something that Skype needs to fix.

Skype Cuts Some Rates

Skype has lowered rates of its SkypeOut service to some destinations as part of its first anniversary celebrations. Here are the details:

Six major new countries have been added to the SkypeOut Global Rate, a fixed, low-cost rate of 1.7 Euro cents per minute to popular calling destinations. China, Greece, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Poland and Switzerland have joined more than 20 additional destinations in the Global Rate. Skype has also significantly lowered SkypeOut rates for calling numbers in Armenia, Bangladesh, Belarus, Bulgaria, the Cook Islands, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Korea, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland (mobile), Portugal, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka and Turkey.

I’m not quite clear from the press release, but it sounds as if this is an average reduction of 15%.

It’s not all good news: Prices for SkypeOut calls to Saudi Arabia, Papua New Guinea, Oman, Lichtenstein and Haiti numbers will increase slightly.

A Skype Rival?

A rival to Skype? broadband reports talks about Jajah:

Jajah is a new Skype-like IP based communications client that seems to offer more features than Skype. In particular, it claims an ability to seamlessly handle SMS, bridge to Skype and SIP phones, and send video (as well as the usual low priced direct-to-phone calling rates).

I haven’t checked it out yet.

Skype And The Rise Of a Phenomenon We Can’t Pronounce Properly

I recently noticed an interesting phenomenon: Not everyone agrees on how to pronounce Skype, the Internet telephony service. An American friend calls it ‘Skypy’, a Belgian acquaintance calls it ‘Skypé’, and someone else calls it ‘Skypee’. I even noticed the excellent Skype Journal, when it talks about the video plug in for Skype, Vidpe, says it assumes ‘is the name of the product because it rhymes with Skype ‘. That would make it Skid-pee, would it not?

I always thought it was pronounced Skipe. And indeed, have gently mocked anyone who pronounces it otherwise, citing type, pipe, wipe, tripe, gripe, ripe, etc etc. I’ve called it Skipe in interviews with Skype execs. Hell, even my mother calls it Skipe. Still, I thought I should double check. And here, on Skype Frequently Asked Questions is the answer:

How do you pronounce the word Skype?
Skype rhymes with ripe and type.

So there you are. But that’s not the interesting bit. My theory from this is that the pronunciation thing is a reflection of the fact that Skype is a real break-out product. People who would not usually download products and figure out how to use them are doing so because of the immense savings, and it is this breadth of usage that contributes to the confusion over how to pronounce it.

Usually everyone knows what to call something because it spreads via the media — TV, radio, newspapers — so people are likely to hear the name before they start adopting it. Here people heard about Skype from friends, long before they heard about it from more formal channels, and started using it right then and there. On Factiva Skype got 35 mentions in September 2003 (compared with 529 for Wi-Fi in the same month) and yet the next month, the month of its launch, had been downloaded 90,000 times. Coverage in the mainstream media did not begin to rise until March 2004, by which time it had been downloaded 4 million times. Coverage was still spotty until the last quarter of 2004, reaching a peak of 200 mentions a month by which time it had been downloaded 20 million times. (Compare that coverage to blogging, which was getting more than 2,000 mentions a month by late 2004.) Skype, like ICQ and SMS before it, was hitting the big time because of word-of-mouth, not word-of-media. At least, not the traditional sort.

Skype is officially a revolution because we’re using it before we even know what to call it.

UK WiFi Users Get Free Skype Calls

Skype is moved into wireless telephony by announceing that a deal with UK wireless provider Broadreach, the BBC reports.

People using wireless net hotspots will soon be able to make free phone calls as well as surf the net.

Wireless provider Broadreach and net telephony firm Skype are rolling out a service at 350 hotspots around the UK this week.

Users will need a Skype account – downloadable for free – and they will then be able to make net calls via wi-fi without paying for net access.