I just downloaded version 7.0 of Skype for Mac, which adds a number of features that gets one to thinking: Is Skype good enough for unified communications, at least for some organizations?
With Skype you can now conduct group videoconferencing along with screen-sharing and file-sharing. This, of course, is on top of the existing audio-conferencing, chat and presence features Skype has had for ages. It sounds dangerously close to the kind of features you get with the likes of Webex or Microsoft’s own Lync, with one rather large difference: Skype is free.
To be sure, employees in organizations of all stripes are already using Skype, having become used to it in their personal lives. It has taken raps for its videoconferencing quality, however, such as this analysis from 2013 by ET Group (which admittedly is not an impartial observer since it sells UC solutions):
Skype video is pretty good for person to person but their multi-party video offering is chargeable, requiring one participant to have a premier account, and doesn’t work that well. I have used other products that allow me to conduct a good video to video call with limited bandwidth, where the same call using Skype, has Skype telling me to turn off my video because there is not enough bandwidth.Skype will likely continue to develop this part of their technology solution. A case in point is that they just recently announced a new Video Messaging service where users (for a fee) can leave video mail messages.
What a difference a year makes, as the multi-party video feature is now free, as is the video messaging feature.
A Bit of History
The very idea that you can conduct a multi-party audio or video conference, with users literally around the world – for free – is a bit mind-boggling to those of us of a certain age who remember a far different world.
My oldest brother went to the University of Hawaii back in the mid-1960s. His infrequent phone calls home were a big deal – because we all knew they were expensive. A bunch of his six brothers and our parents would be huddled around one of the 2 or 3 phones in the house to hear and try to get a few words in. He’s still there but now I can call him on my cell phone for no extra charge or via Skype for free (if he wasn’t among the last people on earth who refuse to use a computer).
The Network Computing contributor Kurt Marko summed up the evolution nicely in a post last year:
A decade ago, outfitting a meeting room with a video conferencing appliance ran well into four, if not five, figures; not to mention the dedicated circuits (typically ISDN in those days) needed for interconnect. Fast forward to 2013: The average enterprise has hundreds of megabits (if not a gigabit or more) of Internet bandwidth, and wireless LANs, mobile LTE networks and home broadband links are more than up to the task of streaming HD-quality video. Meanwhile, hardware costs have plunged by a couple orders of magnitude, to the point that most laptops and smartphones now embed HD-quality cameras.
Following the disruptive technology playbook to a tee, consumer-grade hardware and services have finally become good enough for serious business use…
We’re in the midst of the democratization of video, where previously specialized and expensive technology reserved to a small priesthood of professionals and deep-pocketed large enterprises has been unleashed on everyone. Translated to IT, this means adapting communication strategies to reflect the new era of cheap and easy consumer-based products and services and incorporating hardware with consumer DNA into the workflow.
Microsoft Connecting Skype and Lync Video
Microsoft itself recognizes Skype as a legitimate tool for business video. Rather than try to force its Lync users to deploy Lync clients to all users who want to participate in videoconferences, Microsoft earlier this year made it possible for Skype users to join in. As Gurdeen Pall, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Skype and Lync wrote on his blog:
Skype made video calling between consumers everywhere possible, and Lync delivered cost-effective HD video calling and meetings over the Internet for enterprises. Last year, we connected Skype and Lync for audio calling and instant messaging. Customers have already registered more than 10,000 unique domain names to use this service. Today, we’ve taken this a step further by demonstrating video calling between Skype and Lync, making it possible for consumers and businesses everywhere to use video for nearly every conversation.
I’m sure Microsoft would prefer all users purchase Lync client licenses rather than use Skype, but for some use cases – contractors and partners, for example – the Skype integration will be quite useful.
And it gives Microsoft a leg up one some other UC vendors, whose platforms don’t play nice with Skype. As this story in Network World points out, quoting Irwin Lazar, an analyst with Nemertes Research:
Skype remains an annoyance to Cisco, Avaya, IBM and others because their VoIP platforms are not integrated with it. That’s significant to businesses in which Skype has become a de facto standard for business communication, he says.
In fact, Lazar notes that Cisco was so annoyed it filed suit in the EU attempting to block the Microsoft acquisition of Skype.
In a future post, we’ll take a look at the business potential for another consumer-oriented application: Google Hangouts.
In the mean time, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter, as to what sorts of situations you find the likes of Skype and Google Hangouts to be “good enough” for business UC applications.