Is Skype’s Adoption of WebRTC Enough to Keep it Relevant?

17/11/2014

While everyone is busy understanding the impact on WebRTC, I am more interested in the impact on Skype.

Skype for Web

At this last quarter of 2014 it seems that Microsoft is transforming. Changing from a slumbering incumbent who drifts into irrelevance while making boatloads of money into a powerhouse of innovation and openness. With free Office versions for iOS and Android, to open sourcing Visual Studio and .NET, to… ORTC/WebRTC support.

The fact that Skype is now experimenting with WebRTC in a beta version shouldn’t be a surprise. It was the next step. It might be a bit unexpected – for Microsoft to move that fast since their earlier announcement, but other than that – it was just another milestone in the project plan set forth since the day Microsoft announced considering to implement ORTC in Internet Explorer.

So a new beta of something called Skype for Web should be released in the coming weeks. Presumably opened up slowly to the large user base that is Skype. What we know of at the moment is that nothing has changed in Skype besides the ability to run it inside a browser. Based on that assumption, as well as Skype’s official announcement on their blog, here are my current thoughts:

  • ORTC is WebRTC, but it is going to be hard for Microsoft to say that out-loud
    • ORTC isn’t mentioned in Skype’s announcement even once
    • WebRTC isn’t mentioned directly, but rather as web RTC. Quaint
  • Skype already has a large install base. They have no real need to add the browser into the mix. At least not as a standalone client. This is probably a first step in a longer journey for “Skype for web”
  • Skype is a VoIP OTT player who hasn’t introduced anything meaningful in the past several years. I’d argue that most Skype users use it the same way they did 5 years ago. Skype for Web isn’t changing that
  • Compared to other messaging platform, Skype is lagging and can be seen as the incumbent
    • They have no serious developer program to speak about
    • No commerce platform attached to their service
    • No real monetization besides Skype for Business and PSTN connectivity
  • Most of Skype’s competitors don’t make real use of WebRTC today. They live as mobile (and desktop) apps. Google Hangouts is the exception here, as it uses WebRTC today and embeds nicely with gmail
  • Skype for Web is most probably a plugin for anything other than IE10 and above. This will not change until mid-2015 at the earliest
  • What I am missing in Skype as it shifts towards the web:
    • Ability to communicate out of the “comfort zone” of my buddy list
    • An API for integration, especially for embedding Skype experiences with websites
    • Ad-hoc and scheduled meetings where I can shoot URLs around to participants
    • A better UI on Windows 8.1. One that is actually usable
  • WebRTC isn’t going to be enough for Skype to stay relevant. It will need to evolve faster and to reinvent a lot of itself

Responses

Philipp Hancke says:
November 17, 2014

well, skype has had a web innovations group since 2010, about time that group delivers something 🙂

Hopefully Microsoft is using this to harden the key components needed for ORTC with a shorter release cycle.

Reply
Jim Courtney says:
November 18, 2014

I would argue with the statement that Skype has not done anything meaningful over the past five years. In large part they have built new releases that impact overall performance and hardened the backend so that it has become a more reliable and robust service.

For instance on mobile devices the video calling now supports HD video or QHD video (960×540) (no more postage stamp size 160 x120) and they have resolved the battery drain issues. On the backend chat messages are now buffered for up to 30 days until an offline recipient comes back online; also they have improved the handling of file/photo transfers in a similar way. There are now versions for Amazon Fire, BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone 8.

One other feature introduced over the past year on all platforms has been video messaging. Not sure how much it is used with offerings such as Glide around but at least it’s there now as an option for users.

To some degree another improvement in speed and responsiveness comes from mobile devices with faster processors. Certainly Skype on my BlackBerry Passport with a quad core SnapDragon 804 processor works almost as responsively as Skype on my PC’s. Same for Skype on my iPhone 5.

They also have Click-to-Call at the point where it does not impact my browser performance, finally!

Now this may not sound like revolutionary innovation but it does make for a more reliable, robust service. Let’s just say it’s moving into a more mature phase.

As for Skype on the Web, I think we’ll see some experimenting to see where it is actually used by users. But we’ll not really see the impact until they release a version that does not require a plugin and can be used on all the popular browsers.

Reply
    Tsahi Levent-Levi says:
    November 18, 2014

    Jim,

    Thanks for the comment.

    My impressions are purely subjective. I find myself using Skype a lot less than I have ever used to, opting to use other OTT and messaging alternatives (with our without WebRTC). These alternatives offer better user experience and options that I sourly find missing from Skype.

    The fact that most of what was done at Skype in recent years was around hardening and improving media quality is telling to the problem. We are at a time where communications is being redefined. Skype isn’t part of that effort.

    Reply
Peter says:
June 13, 2015

Nice article. Would it be possible to do it with less marketing speak? Monetization is what killed most platforms of today, despite their popularity.

I’d prefer a more neutral, more usability focused and technically focused perspective. I wish the marketing speak and thoughts would stay where they belong, and don’t take over IT more and more. But that’s just me.

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Will WebRTC Grab Hold of the Video Communication Market? says:
November 3, 2015

[…] far, WebRTC’s biggest claim to fame has been its integration with Skype. But, as Tsahi Levent-Levi argued, “WebRTC isn’t going to be enough for Skype to stay relevant. It will need to evolve faster and […]

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