Skype Celebrates 9 Years of Disrupting Telecom, But What Comes Next?

Nine years ago today, August 29, 2003, the first version of Skype was made publicly available. Now in 2012 Skype celebrates it’s 9th birthday – and first birthday as part of Microsoft… and it’s still disrupting telecommunications.

As I look back on my last year of writing about Skype, I’d note that they’ve finally gotten the app to work more similarly across operating systems, introduced amazing video quality, crossed over 40 million simultaneous users, made yet another attempt at a developer program and continually improved the Skype-on-mobile-device experience. Skype has also added a deeper Facebook integration, embedded Skype into more TV and other consumer devices, rolled out Skype on Windows Phone and continued to improve their video offerings.

What will we be writing about on Skype’s 10th birthday next year?

The whole “social interaction” is a key one… but let me expand on a couple of points here.

Skype’s greatest challenge going forward is one that comes from its success – by most any measure, Skype is destroying the revenue for international long-distance. Telegeography released a report back in January showing the incredible growth of Skype calling versus that of traditional carriers:

A study prior to that in January 2011 had estimated that 25% of all international calling was via Skype… and the growth in this more recent chart can only mean that number has gone even higher.

I can say that from personal experience – I never make international calls using the legacy phone network. I use Skype for all those calls… either from my laptop or increasingly from my mobile devices.

The traditional telcos, of course, are not happy about this. Particularly the ones associated with national governments for whom all those international long distance charges constituted a MAJOR source of national revenue.

All this pent-up anger and frustration with declining revenue is heading toward the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in December in Dubai where many of the traditional carriers are attempting to use the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) as a vehicle to reign in the OTT apps like Skype. They (through various governments) want to see the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) rewritten to force OTT apps to pay.

Just look at all the WCIT-related news stories. I certainly hope that sanity will prevail and that the Internet will remain much as it is today… but there are no guarantees and these next few months are going to be critical for the future of the Internet, for telecommunications and for companies like Skype.

WebRTC/RTCWEB and Baking Voice Into The Fabric Of The Web

Another challenge for Skype will be the ongoing work of the “WebRTC/RTCWEB initiative” to essentially bake voice/video/chat communication into the fabric of the web. (Learn more about WebRTC/RTCWEB if you aren’t aware of it.)

BUT … as much as there are many people using Skype, there are MANY more who use web browsers!

What if you don’t need to have a separate application any longer? What if you can just do all your “real-time communications” (RTC) through your web browsers?

That is exactly what the WebRTC/RTCWEB initiative is all about – putting the building blocks for RTC down into web browsers so that any web developer can work on building RTC applications.

Now, Skype has been involved with WebRTC/RTCWEB from the initial meetings. Skype employs a number of the people who have been contributors along the way. Many have seen this as a possible way for Skype to roll out its own web-based Skype client and make that even more ubiquitous.

Will the divergence be resolved? Will there be a common solution? Or will Skype/Microsoft go on their own path? Will we see incompatible implementations? Will WebRTC/RTCWEB open up the possibility of some true challengers to Skype’s dominance? Or will it wind up not delivering on the full promise of browser-based RTC?

The Microsoft Effect

Skype also faces the good and bad news that it is now part of Microsoft. On the one hand, there is a huge potential for Skype expansion into enterprises (a market Microsoft knows extremely well) and certainly some interesting synergies with Microsoft Lync and other products.

As several of us wrote about back at the beginning of 2012, Skype has the real chance of becoming “boring”, i.e. not as exciting to write about. As I said in my post:

Add to that the fact that in 2012 Microsoft is not really seen in the larger media as a bastion of innovation.

It All Comes Down To #[email protected]%$! Batteries

It perhaps goes without saying that the future of so much of our communication is all about mobile and the use of smartphones, tablets, etc. As I wrote at the end of my recent post about Skype’s photo sharing for iOS, Skype would love to see us just keep Skype running all the time on our mobile devices. They say as much in their blog post:

This is their mobile challenge. I do NOT keep Skype running on my mobile devices for precisely this reason. Doing so has destroyed my battery life in the past. (In fairness, I’ve not yet tested this new version.)

Skype’s mission is to get their mobile app to the point where people do keep it there running all the time.

Finally, the “social” aspect is one challenge that Skype certainly faces. There is the ongoing reality that:

We use Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn and a hundred other sites (and maybe soon) to share our messaging. On our mobile devices we’ve also added in other OTT apps like WhatsApp, Viber, TuMe and again a hundred others.

And we’re not “talking” as much as we used to – in either voice or video. Oh, sure, we definitely are talking… and Skype’s video usage, in particular, is no doubt increasing as more people discover Skype and also as Skype gets embedded in more video devices.

The question for Skype is how they best play in that space.

The Facebook integration with Skype was an interesting move and I could see it for enabling real time communication from within Facebook… but I personally don’t see the Skype application as a place to read Facebook updates and interact with them. I do that through Facebook’s website – or through Facebook’s mobile apps or other apps like Flipboard or Tweetdeck.

Skype’s challenge is to figure out how they fit into the social ecosystem. Do they attempt to become the real-time communications infrastructure for social networks? So that when you do want to move your interaction to a voice or video call you can do so over Skype? Do they try to open up their massive platform to be a social infrastructure? Do they join the rest of the players in trying to be “the place” where you read your social status updates?

In The End…

… as Skype celebrates its 9th birthday, it’s good to pause and think about all the incredible disruption they have caused. Few companies in recent history have done as much to shake the very foundations of the ways in which we communicate. Recently, my three-year-old daughter said to me:

Earlier in her life when I called on the regular phone line she would look at the phone handset trying to understand why she couldn’t see my video. She has grown up with video communications just being “normal” … and with the idea that you would just talk to a computer screen.

Congrats – and happy birthday – to all the folks at Skype. As noted above, their tenth year is full of challenges… lots of crossroads and choices lie ahead, not all of them under Skype’s control… but I look forward to seeing where we are next August as Skype crosses that 10-year milestone.

UPDATE: Jennifer Caukin at Skype has published a post on Skype’s blog with a timeline infographic outlining the growth of Skype over these past 9 years.

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