Skype: The final frontier?

With its push into real-time language translation, Skype borrows a page from Star Trek

Paramount
Credit: Paramount

Microsoft, Skype's parent company, earlier this year unveiled a public preview of its translator tool, and it's straight out of Star Trek.

I have always wanted my relatives that live abroad to be able to connect with my wife here in the U.S. Until now, the fact that they don't speak the same language has prevented them from being able to have a meaningful conversation. The Skype Translator is on course to change that.

Although translations for Russian and Ukrainian -- the two languages that would have the greatest use within my family -- are not yet available, I'm confident they're on the growing list of soon-to-be supported languages. Currently, the software supports English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Mandarin; according to Microsoft, more languages are on the way.

The software can translate instant messages, but that's not the coolest feature. What I'm excited about is that both parties can speak, and a good, old computerized, English-speaking voice tells you what the other person just said. The voice itself is probably my least favorite feature, but I'm not going to spend much time complaining about that, because its utility is what truly matters.

The whole system is so simple to use, and it really does the heavy translation work for you. Skype has made it a point to show off that ease of use in a video.

The main downside at this point is that the software is still in preview and is only available for Windows 8.1 and Windows 10; that leaves out OS X users, as well as the many users who are still humming along on Windows 7 hardware. In addition, both parties need to have the preview version installed for the translations to work. I can only assume that as Skype gains popularity, this will be less of an issue.

So where does Star Trek analogy come in? Simple: This kind of communication -- a "universal translator" like the ones found on starships -- has been the dream of many Trekkies for a long time. And now it's becoming a reality. As Skype pushes forward with plans to expand this tool, I fully expect other companies to jump on board and create their own versions of this software. I doubt Apple, Facebook and Google will be far behind.

How Microsoft builds this Skype platform is interesting, too. It collects snippets of your voice and conversations to make translations more accurate. And while none of the data that's collected is supposed to be traceable back to a specific user -- all the filenames have randomized IDs -- I'm not sure yet whether I'm totally comfortable with this nod toward privacy. But those concerns are more than outweighed by how useful the Skype service will be and the larger potential it offers.

So what are the impacts? The world has become incredibly small in the last 20 years or so, and it continues to shrink. When Microsoft acquired Skype in 2011, it became a huge player in video calling and messaging, including the integration of Skype into office environments with Skype for Business (formerly Lync). As of 2014, it had about 4.9 million daily active users, and that number has since climbed.

Companies have offices all over the world, and while English has become the de facto language in the business environment, not everyone speaks it. That's why Skype's venture into "universal translator" territory will be such a boon for workers looking to boost their careers or expand their business into the international market. Or for those who have more personal needs.

For me, this technology is a way of bridging the gap between branches of my family tree that otherwise might have lost touch and creating a new level of understanding between disparate cultures. It's becoming inevitable that, eventually, we will all be able to communicate effectively with people from anywhere in the world to learn from them and they from us.

If Skype is successful with the launch of its final, polished product and adds support for new languages, it could become the company that levels the language barriers of the world.

This story, "Skype: The final frontier?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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