What Will Microsoft do With Skype Video Conferencing?

Two years ago, I wrote about using Skype for making free long-distance telephone calls. Since then Skype has progressed a great deal, to the point where Microsoft is buying the company for a whopping 8.5 billion dollars.

Time to start paying attention to Skype again, and in this article I’ll discuss its video capabilities.

I have a business development colleague in Edmonton who frequently uses Skype for video conferencing, and since we have to contact each other frequently, I decided to give it a shot.

The first thing I’ll say is that it is dead simple. All you need is the Skype software, freely downloadable at www.skype.com, a high-speed Internet connection and a computer with speakers, a web camera and a microphone.

Most laptops now come with speakers, web cameras and microphones built-in, so if you have one of these you won’t even need to buy any equipment at all. My laptop doesn’t have a camera, so I went to Future Shop to get one – a Microsoft Model 1381 for which I paid $35, and it does a great job.

Installing the camera was as simple as inserting the CD that came with it, following a few simple instructions, then plugging in the camera into a USB port.

When I started Skype up, it immediately recognized that I now have a camera, and it automatically allowed me to make video conferences. To test it out, I used its “Video Call” facility to contact my Edmonton colleague.
It worked flawlessly the very first try. At times, the video did get a tiny bit choppy, but all in all it was quite clear, and the sound was perfect.

I also have a Polycom PC Speakerphone that I won at a conference, and with that plugged into another USB port, it behaves just like a boardroom speakerphone. Skype recognizes when this device is plugged in, so it bypasses the built-in microphone and speakers in favour of the increased fidelity.

The result with this setup is a very easy to use and effective long-distance meeting that costs not a penny to run.
It will be interesting to see where Microsoft takes Skype. Microsoft currently has its own flavour of video conferencing, called Live Messenger. It also has a corporate video offering called Live Meeting, which makes use of enterprise software called Microsoft Lync Server.  If you have this setup, you can then organize a video conference using Outlook, the same way you would organize any meeting, only now the participants can be anywhere in the world, conferencing in via video.

Microsoft also just released a “cloud” version of its Office suite, which it calls Office 365. One of the Office 365 offerings is Microsoft Lync Online, which provides the backbone for video conferencing using software that you access from the Internet. Mike Hatfield, Nicom’s Chief Technology Officer, tells me that Twitter chatter on the topic indicates that many people feel Skype will in fact be part of Office 365.

So Microsoft purchasing Skype is another way it is embracing the “cloud”, where they see customers renting services online rather than purchasing software and loading it up on in-house computers.

In announcing the Skype deal in May, Microsoft stated it intended to connect Skype users to Outlook and Lync, but also said it would continue to invest in and support users of Skype in non-Microsoft platforms. It also said it would integrate Skype into its Xbox Live home system.

Many industry analysts seem to feel that the biggest reason Microsoft is buying Skype is for use in the Windows Phone 7 mobile operating system, to better compete in the consumer smart phone market. Skype already runs on many mobile devices, including the Blackberry, Google Android phones, and the iPhone, although some of these devices run other video conferencing applications as well.

Shaun Hughes, a senior analyst at Nicom, tells me he thinks the real reason is that it simply allows Microsoft to acquire a huge user base, and wants to capitalize on Skype’s well-known brand name.

It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

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