Company / division: Skype
Microsoft is bringing its Cortana virtual assistant to Skype, over a year after it first demonstrated some of the features at its Build developer conference in 2016. Whereas Cortana does act in some settings as a voice assistant like Siri and the Google Assistant, it’s worth remembering that Microsoft uses the Cortana name to refer to all the underlying AI capabilities too, and that’s what’s being implemented here. The integration is text- rather than voice-based and limited to messaging rather than voice or video interactions, and Cortana will offer up smart replies in messaging conversations and also offer useful information like movie and restaurant reviews. In some ways, this is a different spin on the Context Cards Snapchat added today, and very much along the same lines as Facebook’s current implementation of its M assistant within Messenger – offering context-based suggestions within existing human-to-human interactions. This is part of Microsoft’s broader push to get its AI into every corner of its products and services, but will hampered by the overall stagnation of Skype as a communication platform – though it clearly has some messaging users, it isn’t the default messaging platform for the vast majority of the population, at least in their personal lives.
Microsoft Makes Set of Announcements at Ignite Partner Event (Sep 25, 2017)
Microsoft kicked off its Ignite partner event in Florida today, and made a set of announcements during the opening keynote. The Microsoft blog post linked below gives a quick run-down of the big ones, which included new versions of the Microsoft 365 as-a-service Windows-Office bundle for education and “first-line workers” (roughly, workers who don’t sit behind desks but still use computers), new Azure partnerships with hardware vendors to enable hybrid cloud deployments, enhancements to Azure’s machine learning capabilities, and a push around quantum computing. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also launched a new book about his turnaround of Microsoft, and this was a theme throughout the day’s presentations. Lastly, it appears Microsoft is killing off Skype for Business in favor of its new Slack-like Teams product, which represents yet another in a string of changes to Microsoft’s enterprise communication software over the last few years – I’m hoping this strategy finally sticks. There’s nothing that significant here for the consumer technology market I spend most of my time covering, but the announcements are indicative of the big focus areas Microsoft has at the moment: cloud, AI and machine learning (as much as enablers of third party developers as within Microsoft’s own products), and openness and partnering.
Skype Adds PayPal for P2P Payments (Aug 2, 2017)
Skype is one of those odd products – a fairly sizable communications property owned by a major tech company, and yet one which doesn’t make much money, isn’t growing much, and hasn’t really been focused on either messaging or social communication. It’s been clear, though, for some time that Microsoft would very much like Skype to be a big part of its consumer push and become more of a messaging- centric app, and the makeover it announced today seems like a big step in that direction. The new design, rolling out first on Android and later on other platforms, puts social sharing and messaging much more prominently in the app, but that’s no guarantee that people will actually use those features more or even see Skype as a natural place to do that kind of sharing. I only ever use Skype for work phone calls at this point, and others I’ve spoken to who use its messaging features use those almost exclusively for work communication too, so I’d be very curious to hear more from Microsoft about who is using messaging on Skype and what they’re using it for. My guess is that, for all the changes Microsoft is making here, it won’t be that much more successful than in the past in making Skype a mainstream consumer service or app for social communication and messaging. It doesn’t have the brand or the user base to make that objective work. It’s also adding in more bots, an effort that began with a bang at Build last year but has been quiet since, but again those will only be relevant inasmuch as people are spending a lot of time in Skype already and want and expect to find those interactions with brands and companies there. In the end, I don’t see anything here that makes me think Skype is going to become a radically different animal, even if it might look quite different after these changes. And that’s emblematic of Microsoft’s broader consumer challenges: it simply doesn’t have a broad-based consumer play at this point beyond productivity.
Microsoft launches Skype Lite Android app for India and other emerging markets – TechCrunch (Feb 22, 2017)
This looks like a great bit of innovation from Microsoft – both well customized for a local market and the first really compelling implementation of its bot strategy that I’ve seen. Facebook has been doing well for a while with its Lite offerings, which have expanded its reach in emerging markets, and this Skype version seems to offer some of the same benefits. The future integration with the government identity scheme sounds particularly interesting. There’s obviously strong competition in India for the services Skype provides, many of which already cater for users with limited bandwidth, and Microsoft continues to struggle to monetize its consumer efforts including Skype, but it’s great to see it innovating in this very localized way.