Today, Microsoft announced a major new version of its Skype app for consumers. The app is available worldwide today on Android and iOS, but it will ship on Windows and Mac soon.
“The new Skype is the best Skype we’ve ever built—inside and out—and it’s been designed to make it easier for you to use for your everyday communications,” the Skype Team writes in a blog post announcing the release. “Now, Skype can be with you for all life’s moments, no matter where the world takes you – on your favorite devices, to smart speakers, and beyond.”
In a discussion with Microsoft last week, the firm positioned this new client as the front-end complement to the back-end work it described last summer and the culmination of over two years of work. It is also quite clearly the realization of the new Skype client (“Skype for life”) rumors from last September.
The new Skype clients have been “rebuilt from the ground up,” Microsoft says. They’re more attractive, for starters, and they understandably adopt features from popular mobile messaging services like Snapchat.
As intriguing, the new Skype also offers an interesting counterpoint to what Microsoft calls the “social capital” issues we see in popular social networking services like Facebook, where many are simply bragging about their supposedly perfect lives. The new Skype, Microsoft says, goes in a different direction.
“The new Skype is not a stage, a corner pub or a coffee house,” Skype corporate vice president Amritansh Raghav told me last week. “It’s a place for more meaningful conversations. The new Skype enables more intelligent communications for your personal network.”
This concept intrigues me because I’ve been wrestling with the messes that Facebook and Twitter—the social networking services I’ve used most often—have become in recent years. Facebook, for example, is now a home of partisan political news stories, unexceptional meal photos, and general life bragging of the type I am just not interested in. Twitter, somewhat miraculously, is even worse: It’s a festering swamp of ill will and disagreement on even the most innocuous of topics.
But Facebook rankles most because this is where I go to learn about my actual friends and family, and other people I really know in real life. And I’ve found the discourse there to be somewhat unbearable and getting worse. What’s missing, for the most part, is the personal connection that attracted me to the service in the first place. Now it’s just noise.
“Skype has always been about your most important relationships,” Raghav told me. “And now we’ve built out the communications experience for your personal network. The new Skype is the best way to experience your life together, with the people you really care about. You can connect without the noise of social networks, express your personality, and share in new ways. It works everywhere, on every device, at high bandwidth or low, and at high or low latency.”
It’s also really attractive. The new Skype clients provide a nice balance, as Microsoft claims, between the familiar and the new. It features attractive, bold typography, and crisp and clean layout, and it can be personalized in ways that anyone should appreciate.
Not a fan of the light blue Skype color scheme of old? No problem: The first thing you’re prompted to do when you install the client is to choose a new theme, and the new default theme is a spring-like explosion of color. Not interested in all that color? There’s a stark new black and white theme too. Regardless of what you choose, you will get a more personal experience.
Skype mostly works as before: You can send text-based instant messages, conduct audio and video calls, and can involve groups of recipients as before, of course. But in keeping with its new direction, the client has also adopted some of the features and functionality that many—yes, especially millennials and other youngsters—now expect from messaging apps.
This will rankle some, I think, but I am curiously at peace with it. As we see throughout Microsoft, there’s a transition afoot, and when it comes to this type of communications solution, Skype needs to keep up with what its competitors are doing.
That means adding features that keep the ADD set engaged, like adding colorful squiggles to unread conversations, splashing color everywhere, and offering a simpler UI all around. The camera is one swipe away now, for example, so you can quickly turn an IM into a video call using an interaction method that makes sense on mobile devices.
This modernization also means more interactive elements, like animated reactions, emoticons, and other ways in which you can express your personality, and, yes, potentially annoy others. You can place stickers and text on top of photos and video, because of course you can, it’s 2017.
But there’s also deep integration with Microsoft services like Bing, Cortana, and Maps, and some interesting AI work around bots.
For example, a new, conversational Skype bot called Scoop can be summoned to provide you with news you may be interested in. Powered by MSN, Scoop can help you share a breaking news story with individuals or groups, and because it’s shared in a group chat, anyone can interact with it and find out more. With Scoop, news—and news sharing—becomes interactive. There’s a Hipmunk bot for flights as well.
This type of thing is a good idea, I think, because it brings together what used to be separate activities and tasks and makes them part of a single, cohesive event. Whether Skype users will rally to this future is, of course, unclear, but the concept is solid.
Microsoft has also thought through how communication is changing in this mobile era. You might start a group chat, for example, but not everyone is online at the same time. So the group chat conversation can be viewed as a thread, where people contribute as they can. It’s not a one-way conversation like a typical social media post, where one person posts and others can just react or comment. That is, it’s an actual conversation that occurs over time.
That may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s not. Using Microsoft’s terminology, Facebook and other social networks provide a stage, where Skype provides a place for more meaningful and private conversations between you and the people you care about. It’s not a public feed, and that is the attraction. (This privacy is also the primary selling point of the SnapChats of the world, too, of course.)
Whether you view the new Skype as fun and fresh or frivolous will depend on your needs and expectations, I guess. I’ve only been able to test this new client on the iPhone so far, so it’s a bit early for me to chime in quite yet. But … I actually like it so far, and I especially appreciate the new look and feel. Will I ever use the fun, interactive stuff? Beyond using it to annoy Brad, probably not.
But as you must know, Skype is an inescapable fact of my daily life. And while I’ve certainly had my issues with the service in recent years, it’s fair to point out that Microsoft has done a credible job of fixing those problems too. With this client, the firm seems to be closing the loop completely and putting a troubled past behind it. This seems like a fresh start to me.
This article originally stated that only the Android version of the new Skype app was available today. But the iOS app is available now as well.
Also, this article originally mentioned a Bing Travel bot, which is not actually publicly available. This was an example of what an e-commerce service could build using Microsoft’s bot technologies.
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