Skype: is it ready for its bright future?

August 11, 2010

I’m a recent ‘convert’ to Skype. Its ubiquity on a variety of devices, acceptable voice and video call quality and cost effective model finally came together for me. But I’m not convinced it is ready for it’s even bigger potential.

I use Skype on my PCs and laptop, for hands free, direct dialing from Outlook contacts, calling landlines and cell phones as easily as I call other Skype subscribers.  It even allows me to use my cellphone’s caller ID so colleagues, clients, family and friends see a familiar number. I can send SMS messages to cell phones and use a built in voice mail box. But what clenched the deal for me, was the iPhone application. Skype is running happily in the background and will ring when someone ‘Skypes’ me, and with its built in instant messenger features, it’s becoming my ‘go to’ all in communications – replacing MSN Messenger and its siblings. I can make calls over my provider’s 3G network and when talking to other subscribers, the quality is crystal clear even when chatting over the iPhone. I hear every word my girlfriend says.  She loves it.

I’m happy (yes, truly happy) to pay a flat monthly fee of just over $15.00 which allows me to have unlimited calls to anyone, on any phone around the world. I’m saving a bundle on long distance bills, roaming charges and cellular airtime. It’s convenient.

Seems perfect?  Almost.

The brainchild of Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström, its long departed founders (and what a messy, litigious departure it was), Skype feels like a mature product in a fast changing market. And that is not necessarily a good thing.  I’m not sure Skype can capitalize on the kind of opportunities that are now opening up. They do not seem capable of innovating quickly enough to maintain the necessary momentum.  Competitors like ‘Fring’, hungry and eager like the startup ‘teenagers’ that they are, renew and change at the speed of Internet.

So what are those false notes I’m hearing? Let’s start with the PC and Mac client:  not the most polished piece of software currently residing on my PC’s desktop. Considering the length of time they’ve been around, that’s not encouraging. Updates are few and far between. Then there’s the time it took Skype to update their iPhone app to adapt it to Apple’s updated iOS4. The iPad version is worse still. It simply does not exist (you can run the iPhone version – stretched!).  This, while thousands of iPhone and iPad apps are almost instantly taking advantage of any new updates on this important platform.  Not a good sign.  Fring as an example, updated their iPhone app to capitalize on the iPhone 4 video call capabilities – almost immediately upon its release – to compete successfully I, with Apple’s own restrictive ‘FaceTime’ application. Then there are obvious features, which should be an extension to Skype’s brand – video conferencing for example.  What really got me worried (why I’m worried about such a thing, I don’t know) – is the suite of 3rd party ‘plug ins’ one could download directly from Skype. Having an ecosystem of developers (think IPhone apps) developing for this platform is the most important sign that this vendor is capitalizing on its tremendous market penetration and is creating a vibrant community that’ll add value, features and encourage adoption. But looking through the list of vendors, and plug ins, except for obvious goo to have ones (e.g. conversation recording utilities), many are not very exciting, user reviews are often quite negative, and some of the vendors seem to be less than truthful when describing their wares and their charge models.

I’m of course not privy to Skype’s management discussions. Maybe new and exciting enhancements are being hatched, features designed and business plans drawn to take advantage of their imminent IPO’s windfall.  Could be.

As I said, Skype is my current favorite VoiP and video communications platform.  And I’d love to see it expand, add features and introduce even more innovative aspects.  But those telltale signs (call it a tech power user ‘smell test’) are not good. In my estimation, Skype lost its founders a little too early. It tried to grow up a bit too fast.

That’s ok for the likes of Computer Associates, or even Microsoft. But it’s too early for Skype and its market.   Perhaps a little look back, to point us towards the future…

Dear Skype, let’s take a page out your forefather’s book:

“What this power is I cannot say; all I know is that it exists and it becomes available only when a man is in that state of mind in which he knows exactly what he wants and is fully determined not to quit until he finds it.”
-Alexander Graham Bell

It’s too early to quit Skype.  Bring the teenagers back to the rave.


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