Foley on Microsoft

Can Bots Make Skype More Pervasive?

It was a simpler time when Microsoft bought Skype in 2011, a well-known and relatively popular free messaging platform the company likely bought as much for its brand recognition than for its unique contribution to its existing tech portfolio.

Now, Microsoft execs want to do more than simply stay the course with Skype. Redmond wants to make Skype the centerpiece of its productivity strategy by expanding its charter to compete head-on with companies like Facebook, Telegram and Slack.

That's an ambitious goal for the consumer-focused communications service that is as noted for its reliability and performance issues as it is for its messaging, voice and video capabilities and a market full of competitors fighting to defend their turf.

Microsoft execs claim they're working behind the scenes to transition Skype from running on a peer-to-peer (P2P) backbone to one that's Microsoft Azure-based to make the service more robust and able to work better across different platforms. There are still some pieces of Skype that are running on P2P, though Microsoft expects Skype consumers to be almost all cloud before the end of calendar 2016. Newer Skype services such as file sharing, identity and group chat already are on Azure. And as audio and video communications go from P2P to Azure, Microsoft execs claim many of the current Skype annoyances and issues may work themselves out.

Rumors had surfaced earlier this year that Microsoft considered buying collaboration platform vendor Slack for as much as $8 billion, but, supposedly, CEO Satya Nadella decided that Skype could do everything Slack offered -- and more -- hence opting to bet on Skype for its communication/collaboration mix. Microsoft also built a Skype-Slack integration layer letting Slack users launch Skype voice or video calls from that app.

Microsoft also is betting on Skype as its horse in the chat-bot race. At its Build developer conference this past spring, Nadella and other execs introduced Skype bots as key to the "conversation-as-a-service" concept, which included the launch of its Bot Framework and its underlying Skype Bots. Now in preview, Microsoft is encouraging developers to build conversational computing capabilities into their apps.

The introduction of Skype Bots felt more like aspirational positioning than delivery of a platform ready to compete with those offering bots as the successor to single-purpose apps. At Build, Microsoft officials demonstrated previews of some single-purpose bots for the framework including its Bot Directory. While there are only about 30 Skype bots featured in Microsoft's Bot Framework directory as of early August, company officials claim 30,000 developers are building bots on its platform.

Where Skype Bots get more interesting, and potentially more relevant to Microsoft's mission to reinvent productivity, is in how these bots will make use of Bing's knowledge graph to go beyond trivial interactions (like conversing with Spock or getting a daily horoscope) to getting useful tasks accomplished. Like Google, Microsoft is believed to be building a central productivity agent -- which, in Microsoft's case, is called "Bing Concierge Bot" -- that can work across a variety of messaging platforms and handle more complex queries using natural language.

Nadella recently told Bloomberg Businessweek that he sees conversation as a platform as one of a handful of key platform shifts now underway. Others include mobile-first/cloud-first, AI/machine learning and augmented reality or, in other words, all the areas where Microsoft already is making big bets. In many ways, all of these areas of focus come back to Microsoft's stated mission regarding making personal computing "more personal" via voice, handwriting, computer vision and natural language texting input options. Because Skype is now the primary vector for several of these interaction methods, there's a lot of pressure on the Skype team to step up its game right now.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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