Posts tagged Skype
After months of promises, Microsoft finally integrated Skype with Outlook.com, its cloud email and calendaring service. But for its next act, Microsoft may well put Skype on its Xbox console — a move with far more intriguing, and even disturbing, ramifications.
As of today, a select group of Outlook.com users in the UK can begin placing video or voice calls, or sending instant messages, to their existing Skype contacts. Within Outlook, users will have a choice: traditional email will work as before, although the new “Messaging” options will trigger the Skype capabilities. Users can either type in a friend’s name within People, or — in a nice touch — simply click on their picture to launch a message.
Microsoft paid $8.5 billion for Skype two years ago in order to “adapt to a changing market, primarily characterised by permanent and ubiquitous connectivity,” as the IT analyst outfit Duquesne Group put it at the time. So far, Microsoft has steadily moved Skype forward as its ubiquitous communications interface across PCs, Windows tablets, and smartphones. That leaves the Xbox.
Video Kinect To Xbox Skype?
It’s virtually a given that Skype will come to the living room. In February, Giovanni Mezgec, a Skype enterprise product marketing manager, told me that Skype users at home might use a “set-top box” — like, say, the Xbox! — to access the service.
“You are the same time a consumer, the same time a mother, the same time an employee, the same time a person that travels on the bus, you get the idea,” he said in an interview at the time. “What we wanted to do was to offer a set of tools from the living room to the boardroom, a communication platform that is rationalized, but different.”
Officially, though, Microsoft is keeping mum. “We are always thinking about what is next for our platform, but we have nothing further to share at this time,” a spokeswoman said in an email. Rumors of the Skype-Xbox integration popped up earlier this year, following a Microsoft job posting.
And Microsoft’s Xbox already has a videoconferencing solution: Video Kinect, which allows Xbox players to set up video chats with their Xbox Live friends of they own the Kinect depth camera peripheral.
Separate But Equal
In many ways, Skype is playing catchup to features already offered by Video Kinect and the Xbox Live service itself. There’s the video chats, of course, but Xbox Live also supports presence (who’s playing or watching what, provided that users allows their friends to see this); group chats or play experiences, known as “parties”; text and video messages; and private chat.
So far, Microsoft has kept its Xbox Live community separate and distinct from its other online services. That means that each Xbox user can have several collections of friends: Outlook contacts, Messenger contacts, Skype contacts, and an Xbox Live group. If you include Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, which Microsoft also integrates with, that’s seven separate groups. Granted, many of these contacts overlap — but many don’t. (Note that Microsoft asks you for a Microsoft Outlook.com or Hotmail account when you sign up as a new user on the Xbox, for support purposes.)
Microsoft may not be able to do much with how Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn manage their own contact databases, but if and when it integrates Skype with the Xbox, will it merge a user’s Xbox contacts with his or her Skype contact list — or even Outlook contacts?
Turns Out Ubiquity Has A Downside
The question is really a cultural one. Does it make sense for a company like Microsoft to obliterate the distinction between work and play this way?
If you own a Surface tablet, and set up Skype for the first time, Microsoft will ask you to merge your Hotmail contacts with your Skype contacts. That’s not really that big of a deal. But do you really want your boss calling you when you’re playing Lego Batman with your son? I don’t.
What might be interesting, however — from either Skype or Video Kinect — would be the option to replace video avatars with actually small video screens of my friends. I might not like losing screen real estate in Gears of War, but it might add more of a communal sense while playing Hearts or Xbox poker.
Anything else, though, runs the risk of alienating users who just want to be left alone in the evenings. Slowly, we’re all being forced to integrate our jobs into other aspects of our lives. Microsoft may want to eventually push Skype into the Xbox, but it needs to do so delicately.
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On Tuesday, Microsoft is expected to announce that it has combined the teams behind its two VOIP communications solutions, Lync and Skype, into a single team, paving the way for what the company is calling a universal “living room to the boardroom solution.” But will presence of two distinct communication apps confuse the marketplaces Skype and Lync are meant to serve?
Microsoft will also show off an intriguing “Lync Room System,” including cameras and remotely-configured lights, that the company is developing with partners. Finally, Microsoft plans to announce Lync 2013 apps for both Windows Phone 8 and iOS that will arrive in early March, with Android apps arriving about a month later.
Essentially, Microsoft will provide one framework – Skype – for consumer interaction, and another – Lync – for Outlook integration and communication with work teams. Technically, Microsoft now has three VOIP conferencing solutions: customers are now being encouraged to transition off of Microsoft Office Live Meeting, a conferencing package Microsoft acquired from Placeware in 2003.
It remains to be seen how users will react to the dual solutions – will they view them as two sides of the same coin, or redundant apps that call for the elimination of one version?
According to Giovanni Mezgec, General Manager, Enterprise Product Marketing for Skype division at Microsoft, merging the two teams within Microsoft demonstrates a common purpose. This will be highlighted by Tony Bates, the president of the Skype division at Microsoft, in his address to Microsoft’s Lync conference attendees this week.
One Employee, Two Contexts
“We have the belief at Microsoft that people are people, whether they are employees, fathers or consumers,” Mezgec said. “You are the same time a consumer, the same time a mother, the same time an employee, the same time a person that travels on the bus, you get the idea. What we wanted to do was to offer a set of tools from the living room to the boardroom, a communication platform that is rationalized, but different – you have Skype on the consumer front, but Lync on the enterprise front. They are different, but the person is the same.”
Microsoft said that Lync has five million seats of enterprise voice service deployed, up from three million just 14 months ago; 90 out of the Fortune 100 companies use Lync. Microsoft also touted 1,000 partners which now “bet their business” on deploying solutions for Lync, of which 600 have been added in the last three years.
Lync essentially adds a new dimension to Office tools like Outlook. Users quickly can determine if a fellow worker is online and available, and the software can either initiate a voice call, a chat, or even a videoconference to the other worker. Visually, Lync doesn’t look like Skype, and Lync clearly is designed to complement the numerous interactions that characterize the typical business relationship. And yet – both do largely the same thing.
There are exceptions; in a demonstration of Lync 2013, Mezgec showed how users could access a shared PowerPoint presentation and skip ahead. Skype users cannot share documents, although they can share screens. Mezgec also showed how Lync users can “pin” a video of a user, even if they’re not speaking, so they can keep an eye on them for non-verbal cues.
“What we’re trying to do is replicate a real-life meeting,” Mezgec said.
By March, owners of Windows Phones and Apple devices will be able to (or will be forced to) choose between two apps on their mobile devices, with both apps connecting via VOIP and video over IP to each other. iPad owners will also be able to view shared desktop and application content within a Lync meeting, Microsoft said.
Over the next 18 months, Microsoft said it would also commit to adding rich video to the interoperability between Skype and Lync; add enterprise voice support to Lync Online, its Lync Web app; enable LiveMeeting users to transition to Lync via the addition of structured meeting support to Lync Online and the next version of Lync Server; and deliver quarterly updates to Lync Online. Microsoft will deliver the next Lync Server revision in the second quarter of 2014, it said.
A New Toy: Lync Room System
Within the Lync 2013 environment, hardware geeks will find a new toy to play with: the Lync Room System, which will provide remote-management services for an entire conference room. “We don’t think the experience is as nice as it could be,” Mezgec said of the conference experience.
Microsoft has struck partnerships with Polycom, Smart, Crestron and LifeSized (Logitech) to produce the small tablet control devices, about the size of a car’s GPS. Before the meeting even begins, a user can reserve it, program the Lync system to contact the parties at the available time, and even being the lights up. The presenter merely has to plug in his laptop via an HDMI cable, and a second screen can be used to display the video feeds from the participants. The partners will announce pricing, Mezgec said.
Representatives from Hewlett-Packard will be on stage at the Lync conference, Mezgec said, indicating that Microsoft does not view them as a competitor. However, the Lync system is aimed directly at unified communications solutions from Avaya and Cisco. (Cisco chief executive John Chambers recently identified the company’s largest challenge as telepresence, indicating that the company is vulnerable.)
Two Apps Enter, One App Wins?
Manufacturers have sold two similar products into distinct markets before: a common laptop platform designed for consumer and business markets; budget- and premium-priced bottled water; even a common chassis elements sold as a Toyota and a Lexus. And while Microsoft has integrated Skype tightly into Windows 8, Lync is clearly an enterprise product, with collaboration being the key feature that distinguishes the two.
The problem is one of positioning. Products like Microsoft’s Surface tablet acknowledge and encourage the Bring Your Own Device trend, which unifies the consumer/enterprise split into a single device. With Lync and Skype, Microsoft must maintain the divide. Unifying the teams probably anticipates a future where engineering resources are entirely shared, and Skype merely becomes a de-featured version of Lync with a more consumer-friendly UI.
Still, there is the problem of choice. “If you are a consumer, when you’re at home you might be in front of the TV, and you would use a set-top box to call Skype,” Mezgec said. But what if you want to access your business calendar?
Eventually, Microsoft will work it out. But for now, the Skype/Lync split still seems confusing.
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Forty-five organizations concerned with online privacy co-signed a request Thursday for Microsoft and Skype to finally come clean on whether the service is well and truly private.
In an open letter addressed to Skype president Tony Bates, Microsoft chief privacy officer Brendon Lynch and Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and others criticized Microsoft for its “persistently unclear and confusing statements about the confidentiality of Skype conversations,” especially whether or not repressive governments and other organizations can monitor Skype conversations.
At press time, Microsoft representatives said only that they were reviewing the letter.
Essentially, the groups are asking for a regular statement of accountability, including
- Quantitative data regarding the release of Skype user information to third parties, broken down by the country of origin of the request, the number of requests made by governments, the type of data requested, and the proportion of requests with which it complied — and the basis for rejecting those requests it does not comply with.
- Specific details of what data Microsoft and Skype collect and retain.
- Skype’s “best understanding” of what data possibly malicious third parties may collect from Skype users.
- Its responsibilities under the Communications Assistance For Law Enforcement (CALEA) Act and others for cooperating with law enforcement
- Its relationship with China’s TOM Online and other licensed users, including if they’re legally allowed to monitor and censor their user’s Skype calls.
Matching The Competition
The groups argued that both Twitter and Google already present similar disclosures, so Skype and Microsoft would merely be falling in line with more established practices.
Skype’s ~600 million users are spread across the world, where many of the service’s users attempt to avoid censorship or discovery by chatting on Skype rather than on a mobile phone. This can be problematic, depending on your perspective; on one hand, insurgents and rebels can use Skype, but so can protesters against tyrannical regimes. Unfortunately, some see those regimes as existing within the United States, and a story by The Washington Post last July claimed that Skype had expanded its “cooperation” with U.S. law enforcement to make online chats visible to police, even though the article noted that it still wasn’t entirely practical to do so. Reporters Without Borders told The Verge that many journalists had reported that their calls had been intercepted.
The other issue is that, after acquiring Skype, Microsoft closely tied the VOiP Internet calling service to Windows 8, as well as Windows Phone 8, where the initial preview release of Skype wouldn’t turn off.
Does Skype Live Up To Microsoft’s Own Policies?
The letter comes a day after Microsoft published a series of online privacy guides for its own products, including Bing, Internet Explorer and the Xbox – but not Skype. An Australian privacy agency wondered, however, wherther Microsoft had gone far enough. Some of those privacy protections include what the company calls Tracking Protection, the refusal to disclose any third-party information to a “blacklist” of sites that the user selects.
As Scott Fulton III noted on ReadWrite last year, the problem of online privacy, at least within Web browsers, dates back to 1996, when Google was accused of circumventing privacy protections to deliver Web ads.
But Microsoft’s Tracking Protection within Internet Explorer has created a high bar for the rest of the company’s online products. It’s easy to ask for or or order Microsoft to do the same for Skype, although coding that protection in would almost certainly require some development work. What the EFF and over a hundred individuals are asking for is a good first step.
As of now, even basic levels of privacy within Skype remain problematic. The service makes it exceedingly easy to search out new Skype contacts, even those you’ve never “met” or connected with before. That opens up users to being spammed, phished or even monitored.
The authors of the letter say they realize that the acquisition and integration of Skype within Microsoft may have made “questions of lawful access, user data collection, and the degree of security of Skype communications temporarily difficult to authoritatively answer.” But they note the merger was announced in October 2011 – giving Microsoft plenty of time to plan its privacy strategy for Skype.
Given Microsoft’s recent very public statement about its commitment to privacy – and the upcoming Data Privacy Day on January 28th, this might be the perfect opportunity for Microsoft to explain Skype’s commitment to privacy as well.
Image from Skype.com.
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Skype has rebuilt, an ad-friendly platform for Windows 8. Its three components will be rolled out in phases beginning in the first quarter of 2013. The first component is to build on their current Conversation Ads offering. Second, sponsored content.
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Microsoft quietly launched a preview version of Skype for Windows Phone over the weekend, with one major problem: you can’t turn it off.
That means, unfortunately, that users who don’t want to be bothered by Skype contacts pinging them morning, noon and night will be forced to turn their phones off. Even “going invisible,” another option, doesn’t help. So far, Microsoft hasn’t responded to a request for comment.
On the Windows Store, the Skype app download is characterized as a “preview release,” with the caveat: “**THIS IS A PREVIEW RELEASE, EXPERIENCES ARE NOT YET FINAL.**” The app requires Windows Phone 8, naturally, which is currently available on two phones: the Nokia Lumia 820, as well as the HTC Windows 8X, both of which started shipping soon after the announcement of Windows Phone 8.
Hands On Testing
I tried out the app on Monday morning, and, in general, found it easy to use. But commenters on the app page itself noted several problems with the Lumia implementation, claiming that background notifications didn’t work, and that the app didn’t work from phone to phone. I didn’t try it out with another Windows 8 phone, but phone-to-computer communications worked just fine, although I noted an odd delay in the video on one occasion, which was solved by quitting and logging back into the app on my computer.
Once you download the app, you’ll be asked to sign in: either with your Skype ID or with a linked Microsoft account. My Microsoft account wasn’t linked, so I used my Skype ID. Skype then mined my contact list for its mobile numbers, which I could then use to make a call. (Those numbers were previously imported from my linked Google account.) I had trouble texting a mobile number from within Skype, and for some reason the app couldn’t parse the parentheses that my contacts used to distinguish area codes. As other users have noted, phone-to-phone communication needs some work.
As on Windows 8 (at top) the Skype app integrates with Windows Phone 8 as a Live Tile, showing you messages you might have missed and other information right on the home screen. It’s a nice feature.
Using Skype from the phone worked as expected. It’s worth noting that Microsoft is, unfortunately, bringing up the rear: Skype is already available for the Android and iOS platforms, and also provides text chat and video calling. As on the other two platforms, video chats use the portrait orientation, just as the Windows Phone interface does. Naturally, calls via Skype use data, not cellular minutes, so the quality of the experience depends on your data connection.
One advantage of Skype is that users who are visible can be searched for using the Skype search interface, either by name or by alias. Normally, this isn’t a problem, as notifications can be hidden in the background. If a user attempts to connect to a user who is logged out of Skype, the call simply won’t go through, even if the user knows the login name or email address.
Please Leave Me Alone!
On Windows Phone 8, however, I was able to set up a dummy account, then call my active Skype account, even though it was set to invisible. The real problem, however, was when I rebooted my phone: Once installed, Skype connects to the network even if the app isn’t loaded. Put another way: Once you reboot your phone, even if you don’t touch it again, the phone will load Skype. I placed a video call to my phone, which captured focus and asked if I wanted to answer it. I had all the normal options available – answer it via audio, initiate a video chat, or ignore it – but I was still forced to acknowledge the phone.
Microsoft has said previously that it plans to integrate Skype with virtually all of its products. In late October, Microsoft’s communications software received a “Metro”-style interface update, with contacts visually represented as pictures, rather than the text-heavy interface Skype previously used. Microsoft also made the Skype app downloadable on Friday, October 26, for both Windows 8 and Windows RT, allowing users to enjoy Skype as a standalone application. But users will have to wait for a more formal integration into Office to enjoy the rest of the integration benefits. On the desktop, Skype is essentially the Microsoft Office of connectivity.
The desktop, however, just sits there. We can walk away from it. Phones typically go with us wherever we go, and forcing users to be connected all the time will rankle a number of people.
Here’s one way of looking at it: “He taught my mother to Skype,” comedian Bruce Vilanch said on a recent episode of ABC’s VC reality show, “Shark Tank,” about an entrepreneur he partnered with. “Now I can’t get rid of her. I turn on my computer, there she is.” That’s the same problem that Windows Phone 8 Skype users will have, only worse, since they’re phones will always be with them.
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Thursday, Microsoft’s Skype launched Skype In The Workspace, a service that combines elements of Quora and social networking to create an online space where entrepreneurs can seek knowledge from one another.
In reality, Skype In The Workspace is a fancy bulletin board designed to help small businesses connect with each other to provide live question-and-answer sessions — via Skype, naturally. In a sense, the bare-bones service is simply fertile ground to grow new contacts from an entrepreneur’s existing list of Skype contacts, providing an automated way to search out new contacts and connect.
Skype In The Workspace Coming Out Of Beta
Skype In The Workspace exits its six-month beta Thursday, allowing the world to sign up and seek out new connections. Five hundred businesses offering more than 140 services tested the platform, Microsoft said.
Microsoft sees big potential for the service: The Small Business Administration counted 27 million small businesses in 2011, while Skype boasts 280 million active subscribers. It makes sense that at least some of them will want to connect with each other.
According to Ural Cebeci, a product marketing manager at Skype, the Skype In The Workspace platform allows entrepreneurs and small businesses to overcome limitations of geography, connecting online with people whoe they may not have otherwise met. The tools are still relatively barebones; there are no explicit ties to other Microsoft services, such as Outlook.
You have to schedule your own conferences using your own software. Skype In The Workspace subscribers won’t be able to pay each other for the privilege of meeting either, at least not through the service.
Cebeci compared Skype In The Workspace to a coffee house or a shared workspace.
“It’s really the community talking to the community,” he said in an interview.
Microsoft already provides collaboration tools for businesses, namely Lync, which also includes the ability to work together via video. The difference, Cebeci said, is that Skype In The Workspace is all about small businesses, while Lync’s focus is on the enterprise. In the future, Lync users will directly be able to contact Skype subscribers via IM, and be able to see their presence, and make audio calls, and vice versa.
Microsoft also has SharePoint, but that’s somewhat further removed, using collaborative workspaces and shared pages to manage and develop projects. Still, given that Microsoft executives have talked about Skype’s integration across all of its product lines, Skype should be able to span most if not all of Microsoft’s products.
(Separately, Microsoft said that it plans to retire Windows Messenger by early 2013, but that all of each user’s contacts will be imported into Skype 6.0.)
Skype In The Workspace’s “opportunities” are themselves curated, and you can also search out your own. The layout, however, is open and unfocused, and in this iteration, it’s really incumbent upon people to seek their own opportunities to network, or else hope that Skype In The Workspace puts a relevant connection in front of them. Unfortunately, you can’t search opportunities by the name of the person that posted them. However, you can “favorite” opportunities and come back to them later.
One beta participant, Toby Trembath, the head of intraction design at WildWest Design, and founder at TwoByte Interactive, offered design consulting via the SITW beta. But ir hasn’t proven useful yet, he said.
“To be honest, you are the first person to contact me regarding this, so it hasn’t been super-successful for me,” Trembath said via email from the U.K.
“This probably has as much to to do with the insufficient amount of time I put into creating the advert as anything else. I’ve just updated it with fresh eyes, maybe it will drum up a bit more interest but I won’t be holding my breath. Most of my current business comes through word of mouth and customer referrals.”
Hands-On With Skype In The Workspace
Users visiting Skype In The Workspace for the first time are asked to log on with either their Skype ID or LinkedIn profile, then fill in a little information about themselves. At this point, tying your profile to LinkedIn saves some time.
From there, you, well, search. Skype In The Workspace presents a list of curated opportunities, but the service resembles Craigslist in that each participant can both hang out a shingle (if they so choose) as well as hunt down their own sources of knowledge. There’s no real “social” element to Skype In The Workspace — people are invited to chat for five, 10, 15, 20 minutes and so on on a given topic. Points aren’t awarded for knowledge, for example, as some of Microsoft’s own TechNet blogs do, and users can’t vote topics up or down.
Really, there’s no indication whether someone claiming to be a “social media expert” really is, or if they’re a raw greenhorn. Or, worse still, a bored Chatroulette user seeking out new horizons. To learn more about a potential connection, a Skype In The Workspace user might be better off exploring the connected LinkedIn profile and other social networks.
If you do find a potential conversation that interests you, however, clicking on the “connect” button generates an email to facilitate the connection. But if Skype In The Workspace knows whether or not the other user is online (the concept of “presence”), there’s no indication.
As with any social network, the problem is one of scale. For now, the limited number of members means that people can be assured that they’ll discover most of the opportunities Skype In The Workspace offers. But as more sign on, the risk is that the service will be drowned by a wave of opportunities and participants. Features such as filtering by tags, for example, will be left to new iterations, Cebeci said.
Likewise, you can’t import your existing list of Skype contacts into the Skype In The Workspace framework, which apparently means yet another platform for notifications and connections.
A video-based, Quora-like repository of knowledge seems to have value, but only if people can quickly connect and benefit. Skype In The Workspace really needs filtering capabilities, as well as some sort of reputation system. Microsoft has built an intriguing platform with Skype In The Workspace, but this initial version seems more curiosity than useful tool for entrepreneurs.
This story was updated to include the exerience of Toby Trembath.
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On Monday, Microsoft brought Skype into the Windows 8 fold, integrating it so tightly into the PC, phone, and tablet experience that it’s essentially the Microsoft Office of connectivity.
Naturally, Microsoft’s communications software received a “Metro”-style update, with contacts visually represented as pictures, rather than the text-heavy interface Skype previously used. Yes, you can still use other VOiP and communication clients in Windows 8. But as with the Office suite, Microsoft encourages you to use its software by tying Skype to its People contact manager. The goal is to get users to ask themselves: “Why would I want go anywhere else?”
Not Everything Connected Yet
The problem, however, is that the full benefits of the new, updated Skype won’t be realized until Microsoft ties it into the remainder of its Office suite. Microsoft will make the Skype app downloadable on Friday, October 26, for both Windows 8 and Windows RT, allowing users to enjoy Skype as a standalone application. But they’ll have to wait for a more formal integration into Office to enjoy the rest of the integration benefits.
Microsoft has already indicated that it will integrate Skype into the Office 365 subscription service. Office 365 subscribers, as well as MSDN and TechNet subscribers, will be able to download the new version of Office in mid-November.
A Microsoft spokeswoman said that Skype will be integrated into Windows 8 and Office via two separate integration points. Here’s the rundown:
- When you log into the standalone Skype app for Windows 8 using a Microsoft account, all your Skype contacts will show up in the People app.
- Skype will also be tied into Office, and 365 subscribers will receive 60 free Skype minutes to place outgoing calls. Skype users will be able to see presence and easily connect with each other from within Office applications. Finally, as Microsoft has previously announced, Lync users will be able to see the presence of other Skype contacts, and instant-message them. Video calling will be added in a future update
How The Skype Integration Will Work
When users download Skype from the Microsoft Store on Friday, the app will appear as a live tile on the home screen. In addition to launching calls when tapped, the live tile will display messages and other live information. If users jump to the People app, they’ll be able to click and connect via Skype just as easily as the app allows them to send an email. Simply logging in to Skype and connecting the Skype account to the People app will automatically add the Skype details of all of a user’s contacts; users can also manually add the phone numbers of contacts who aren’t on Skype. They can also pin favorite or frequently-called connections to the home page.
Not surprisingly, users can also snap Skype into a vertical column on either side of the screen, allowing them to continue browsing the Web. Skype has historically allowed users to share screens, but Microsoft said this capability be not retained within the new Windows app. Microsoft will continue to offer a Skype Premium service, which, for $8.99 per month, offers features like group video calls.
The idea, according to Microsoft corporate vice president Mark Gillette, is that “[o]n Windows 8, you can be always available and reachable whether you are using a desktop, laptop, tablet or convertible PC with Skype running seamlessly in the background without draining your battery.”
Skype isn’t just an app running on Windows 8, it’s an essential, core feature of the Windows ecosystem – not just Windows 8, but Windows Phone 8, too. WPCentral reported last week on a leaked video that Windows Phone will display incoming voice chat requests from contacts as normal calls – including contact display photos. The only difference is the Skype ringtone will sound, so you’ll know it’s Skype rather than a regular call. At some point, of course, the difference will become irrelevant.
Skype vs. The Competition
Just over a year ago, Microsoft closed its $8.5 billion deal to bring Skype in-house. Last week, Microsoft said 120 billion minutes of calls were made on the Skype network, an increase of 58%. The service claims 254 million monthly users, and recently said that 45 million Skype users logged on at the same time. Integration into Windows should only boost those numbers.
But as Skype’s influence grows, third-party apps will find themselves under increasing pressure. Microsoft is clearly positioning Skype as the default communications app for its Windows platform, just as Google Talk and FaceTime have been integrated into Google Android and Apple’s iOS, respectively.
Last week, The New York Times reported that startup AirTime, even though backed by Web wunderkinds Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, was barely staying alive in terms of traffic and users. AOL has essentially given up on AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM. Yahoo Messenger for Mobile, which includes video and text messaging for both iOS and Android, is still growing. But with the new Skype, Microsoft may have put up a very large wall for competing services on Windows 8.
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Salesforce users are starting to understand that Chatter, the messaging and transactions system for the entire Force.com platform, is not a chat tool. Rather, it’s a communications stream that substitutes for most internal email. Why isn’t it a chat tool, you ask? The only plausible answer – that Salesforce simply hasn’t plugged in the chat capability yet – becomes moot next month.
Piece-by-piece, but by no means slowly, Salesforce has been assembling an integrated arsenal of cloud-based weapons aimed squarely at Microsoft’s stronghold on enterprise applications, particularly with respect to communication. We’ve talked about its move to reduce workers’ reliance on Outlook, and email in general, as their main mode of indirect contact. Outlook’s trump card has been its tie-ins to Windows Live Messenger, which are certain to be augmented by tie-ins to Skype (hopefully within our lifetimes).
But Microsoft shedding light on its Skype integration plans would be like Fischer telling Spassky his queen is vulnerable. While Redmond scrambles to coordinate Skype with Office 14 and Windows 8, Salesforce is integrating its own direct IM system into Chatter. Beginning next month, users of Salesforce or apps built on its platform will be able to launch ad hoc chats in the context of their activity streams.
And by fall 2012, the company will add screen sharing.
“For a lot of the ad hoc collaboration – when somebody needs help on a deal or they’re trying to solve a case or write an answer quickly – are they going to set up a meeting and structure that? Usually not,” says Kendall Collins, Salesforce’s senior vice president and general manager for Chatter. Here, Collins is talking about Salesforce’s existing tie-ins to Citrix GoToMeeting, its preferred tool for videoconferencing.
ReadWriteWeb asked Collins whether this new one-two punch of IM with videoconferencing endangers that partnership. His response was clever: Users are likely to kick in screen sharing on the fly or in the context of a support call. They’ll continue to use GoToMeeting, he said, to set up scheduled conferences between multiple parties.
“GoToMeeting is an incredible tool for structured meetings, webinars and large, external audiences,” he said. “But we’ve seen as a gap in the market the ability to collaborate in context around a business process.” In fact, Collins’ meeting with us took place over GoToMeeting – it was scheduled in advance, it utilized single-source screen sharing, and it was moderated. It also involved someone outside the team members’ network (myself). “I think that people will have the need for very structured meetings and content delivery,” he added.
But this new screen-sharing feature will be localized to team members, and will pop up in the context of a chat initiated through the activity stream in the Chatter tab.
The chat process itself is less than revolutionary, though it fills the most prominent void in Salesforce’s cloud arsenal. With the system engaged, users will see point-of-presence indicators beside each team member, indicating their current state of availability. Outlook users have had this ability with Office Communicator for several years now, and it’s part of Microsoft’s tie-in to its Lync server (formerly Unified Communications).
Mobile First? Not This Time
This is where Salesforce’s strategy gets interesting, and maybe a little dicey: The company will roll out its inline chat feature to desktop users first, Collins told us. It’s still testing mobile capabilities. Mobile is important because it impacts the very meaning of “available” in the context of Chatter’s inline chat. Not long ago, “available” and “accessible” were different properties. You may be out of the office and thus unavailable, for example. If (and probably when) mobile accessibility goes live for inline chat, if you’re accessible in any way (that is, if you’re close to your smartphone), then you’re probably available. Unless, of course, you shut your blinds and make yourself unavailable.
And that, strangely enough, plays into Salesforce’s own emerging “karma” metric, which appears below each user’s portrait on her profile page. The metric measures relative influence on other members of the team. It’s an analytic measurement and a complicated one at that, explains Collins: “Customers have never had an ability to understand the influence and impact of any individual in the graph. So you’re starting to see some interesting gamification.” He tells a story of a fellow Salesforce employee who discovered to his own shock that, despite making the most comments to the team, he failed to score high on the influence bar. “That pushed him to contribute more,” he adds, “and I think the value of any network is based on your contributions.”
As Salesforce develops mobile chat, relative accessibility is likely to be a factor in the influence score.
One of the barriers preventing big business from moving to a Salesforce-driven system right away has been the need to comply with federal mandates to retain emails and internal communications. If your business uses less email this year than it did last year, that might look suspicious to a judge.
Collins assures us that Salesforce is keeping this fact in mind, especially as it continues to roll out a separate, governments-only service. “Trust has been a hallmark of Salesforce.com,” he says. “Having auditable processes and audible ways to track data is part of who we are, and that’s no different with Chatter. In fact, one of the reasons IT customers choose Chatter over competitors is that they trust us for compliance, scale, performance, disaster recovery and all the things they need in an enterprise-grade system. We spent a lot of time building out all the key compliance tables for Chatter… We have gone through audits with various financial institutions, many of whom use Chatter as their employee social network. And we know some customers have explicit requirements around e-discovery. We’ve had partners build various tools on top of those compliance tables. So, if you have a very stringent industry requirement or specific company requirement that is not something that Chatter does out of the box, we’ve got a host of partners.”
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News of a potential security leak in Skype’s network protocols may be overblown, an investigation by ReadWriteWeb reveals today. Though it is possible for a program to expose IP addresses that have, at some point in history, been utilized by Skype users, this particular program is not Skype itself or anything that exploits a flaw in Skype.
Rather, it’s a separate, nonendorsed, reverse-engineered form of Skype 5.5. Though the reverse engineering project responsible for this program calls itself “open source,” in actuality, its proprietors appear to have merely de-obfuscated Skype’s proprietary code, made adjustments to it, and recompiled it. Those adjustments can, we discovered, produce human-readable IP addresses.
The commercial Windows-based editions of Skype are capable of logging details of complete user sessions (minus the dialog). Third-party developers who partner with Skype can make two adjustments to their System Registries, as explained on this Skype page, to produce log files that can be shared with Skype’s own developers. However, those files are encrypted so as not to be legible even by the developers. RWW confirmed this fact in its own tests this morning.
The project calling itself “skype-open-source” produces an executable file that demonstrates the use of reverse-engineered code to send a test message through the Skype network. (So as not to further infringe upon intellectual property, ReadWriteWeb will not post links.) This particular file is not the tool in question, and in our tests, could not be used to leak IP addresses. (One form of the tool, however, does appear to be advertising itself as a manipulator of Skype credits.) However, one of the contributors to the project, whose handle is Vilko, did post a link to his own privately hosted package, which contains both the binaries and de-obfuscated source code for a recent version of Skype.
Once the Registry changes suggested by Skype to its developers have been entered, Vilko’s program produces a nonencrypted version of the log file that is completely human-readable. A small portion of one of these session logs is shown above, with potentially identifying data blurred. Note the PresenceManager keyword, which Skype uses to log the use of its own tool for querying the availability and status of a contact.
An examination of these session logs does reveal – as any engineer might expect – that IP addresses are associated with Skype users. As the program retrieves entries for individuals in the user’s contacts list, the log file shows, it retrieves an IP address that is apparently the beginning of a known route to an address the user has employed at some point in history. Our research indicates that this history may go back several years, meaning that a user may have moved to a different city any number of years since an address was first catalogued.
What’s more, the address that leads to a known Skype user, after a number of hops, may or may not be an IP address of the user’s direct Internet host. Several of the IP addresses we found in our research are traceable to Microsoft, though the users we traced are not Microsoft employees, nor do they use Microsoft’s servers. (Microsoft is presently the owner and operator of Skype.) My own Skype data, for example, which I located in the file, traces to a Microsoft server and not to my own company’s network.
So it may be inaccurate to say that even the reverse-engineered program exposes users’ IP addresses, but rather that it exposes addresses that enable Skype servers to make contact with them. In and of themselves, IP addresses are not personally identifiable data, although researchers have demonstrated that, with access to certain databases, it may be easy to deduce users from addresses they have used.
In a recent message, the “skype-open-source” project’s owners suggest that their users try looking up any Skype username. The act of doing so triggers a search for the user’s active status, which is then recorded in the log. That log entry will contain two IP addresses: often one associated with the ISP, and another used for internal routing to the loop associated with the user. Though legal experts have said this is not necessarily personally identifiable data, law enforcement officers have sought this level of information in obtaining evidence on suspects’ Internet activities.
The fact that the “skype-open-source” project first bore fruit in June 2011, and the first revelation by the project’s owners of its unencrypted logging was made just last week, suggests that even the project’s self-described developers may not know exactly what Vilko is up to. On their blog, they congratulate Vilko for his contributions and quote a message from Vilko describing how the de-obfuscated source code may be compiled using Microsoft Visual C++.
As long as code for encrypting one’s log files exists within a program that can be de-obfuscated and reverse-engineered (and many can be), it may be trivially easy for someone like Vilko to simply omit the encryption routines and recompile. In a statement released to the press, a Skype spokesperson contended that problems such as this are “industry wide.” One short-term solution for this problem may be for Skype to change its encryption scheme for its log files, although conceivably such a solution may be very short-lived indeed.
A longer-term solution may be for Skype and/or Microsoft to develop an entirely new logging system, whose files are never human-readable even in their unencrypted form. It may take more skill to decode such a system – skill which the ordinary de-obfuscator of other people’s code may lack.
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