Microsoft buys Skype, but what does that mean for business?

BrandPost By Alan Stevens
May 25, 20115 mins
Security Software

One of the big talking points this month has to be Microsoft’s $8.5 billion acquisition of Skype which, like it or not, will have major implications for all those involved in the communications industry.

Just what the ramifications are likely to be, we’ll have to wait and see, but there’s been plenty of discussion, both as to the financial merits (or otherwise) of the move and the technical pros and cons.

And if that hasn’t been enough, here are a few more of my thoughts, in particular as to how it might impact on the business market

Skype inside

One thing that can’t be argued against is that, if nothing else, the Skype acquisition will put voice and, more importantly, video collaboration front and centre on the most ubiquitous desktop in the world. OK, it’s unlikely to be labelled “Skype inside”, but future Windows desktops will have the technology built in somehow, ready and waiting to be used by millions of potential users.

Microsoft has also pledged to continue development of Skype on other platforms, so there’s a chance it won’t disappear into the Windows-only black hole previous purchases have fallen into. And that’s definitely a smart move as, despite its pre-eminence on the desktop, Windows is far from the dominant technology on mobile devices or the latest generation of tablets. Devices which are fast becoming as important as conventional desktop and notebook PCs in the business space.

Woolly thinking

So you’ll still be able to use Skype on Xbox or your TV, but what about business users? After all, Skype relies heavily on proprietary VoIP technology, and with the wider unified communications industry putting its weight behind  the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), Microsoft would seem to be swimming against the tide.

Not, perhaps, when it comes to the smaller businesses which help make up Skype’s 500 million plus users. Skype can also be linked into SIP-based PBX systems and its website does have pages dedicated to larger enterprise use. However, it’s hard to see large corporates putting Skype’s peer-to-peer technology at the heart of its communications strategy. Most will inevitably prefer a standards-based alternative operating out of managed datacentres.

More than that, Microsoft already has an enterprise class unified messaging product, in the form of Lync Server 2010 (previously known as Microsoft Office Communications Server) which embraces SIP and other communication standards, at least as far as Microsoft is prepared to embrace such things.

Just how the company intends to position Skype alongside Lync has yet to be revealed, but it could be a difficult act to pull off. All the more so given plans to launch an online Lync service as part of the Office 365 project, Microsoft’s answer to Google Apps.

It’s all very confusing at present with Microsoft giving out mixed and woolly messages as far as the Unified Communications market is concerned, which isn’t what enterprise customers want to hear. Indeed, now more than ever, it needs to get its act together fast if it hopes to worry its, currently more focused, competitors.

More than just software

Talking of the competition, there’s a lot of it about with the UC market dominated by big names  such as Cisco, Alcatel and Avaya all armed with much clearer strategies, focused on the enterprise market, and with few of the distractions a product like Skype can cause.

The competition also has a lot more experience in this market and much broader product portfolios to offer, including not just software but supporting hardware too. Everything from servers and dedicated PBX platforms, through switches and routers to handsets and other end-user devices.

Moreover, it’s these vendors leading the charge when it comes to devices designed specifically with the latest unified communications applications in mind. Able, for example, to better handle video than current generation solutions.

Devices like Cisco’s Cius (pronounced “see-us”) and the less glamorously named Avaya Desktop Video Device. Both take the tablet format popularised by Apple with its iPad, but target it at handling integrated messaging, voice and video collaboration with, on the Android-based Avaya product, support for the company’s recently revamped  video conferencing platform, now known as the Avaya Flare Experience.

Microsoft by comparison simply doesn’t do hardware, preferring to partner with others to handle this side of the equation. OK, it is working with Nokia to put Skype on its smartphones, but video conferencing tablets? That will be down to third party developers creating apps for iPad and Google Android devices and it’s questionable as to whether Skype or the more standards-based Lync is the right technology here.

Auntie Doris calling

And lastly there’s the whole perception of Skype as something used to keep in touch with the kids on their gap year travels, or to call Auntie Doris in Australia without racking up a huge phone bill.

That may not matter in a small business where the main concern is keeping down costs rather than what a product “looks like”. In the corporate world, however, there’s far more resistance to the use of consumer-focused products. Security and manageability are key issues here and Skype falls short on both counts. It’s doubtful that Microsoft will be able to do much about it or, otherwise, raise the profile of its costly new acquisition.

This article is written by Alan Stevens and sponsored by Avaya. The opinions reflected in this piece are solely those of Alan Stevens and may not reflect those of Avaya management