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Friday, June 24, 2011

To Skype or not to Skype

Although Microsoft is buying Skype, Google is about to mount an assault. Using new technology and acquired technology, Google is constructing Skype-like functionality for voice calls, video calls, and instant messages -- but to run within a web browser. Skype, on the other hand, requires that a heavyweight client application be installed on one's Windows PC, Macintosh, or Linux system.

There is a lot to be said for Google's strategy. Many users don't like to download, install, and configure applications like Skype. Corporate IT teams are ambivalent, at best, about such applications too. Many users keep their web browsers open virtually all the time, and many of them are logged into Google in order to use Google Docs, Gmail, iGoogle, etc. Thus we are reachable by Google without having to take any additional action like launching an application.

Google is also adopting a new, open protocol for its Skype-like functionality. In comparison, Skype's innards are highly proprietary. (Whether Google will make the patented technology it acquired from Global IP Sound widely and freely available... well, that's a different story.)

Google is in the browser business, and I'm sure that Google's alternative to Skype will work better in Chrome than it works in Internet Explorer or Firefox. More importantly, Google is releasing Chromebooks that run the new Google Chrome OS. There won't be a Skype for Chromebooks, but they will run Google's alternative to Skype. My parents could really use an instant-on, no-fiddling computer that gives them video chat capability; a Chromebook may be the answer. 

Users of Macintosh and Linux can feel assured that Google's alternative to Skype will be available for eternity, while there is fear, uncertain, and doubt that Microsoft will perpetuate Skype for non-Windows platforms. (Microsoft will perpetuate it, but the FUD factor is sticky.)

All that said, I wouldn't rule out Skype too quickly. It has an enormous customer base who finds it familiar and useful. It has brand name recognition. It has just released the beta of its tight integration with Facebook -- something Google isn't likely to do. Microsoft will drive Skype technology into every niche they can find.

Which system will prevail? I don't know. Personally I give Google the edge, but it will take time. One thing for certain: AOL and Yahoo! IM are dinosaurs. Ten years ago, my then-teenage sons had hundreds of contacts in AIM; I had about 200 contacts in Yahoo IM, which was used extensively within Nortel. Today my sons' AIM accounts (plus my own) are abandoned, and I rarely message someone through Yahoo. Skype could be next.