Skype is the largest business communication tool by some margin, but it faces increasing competition from Slack, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. The latter two have already positioned themselves as potent alternatives in the consumer communication space. To put Skype back on the front foot, Microsoft has today issued a massive update.
Indeed, update is probably too light a term considering this is a complete overhaul that leaves Skype looking and feeling like a different app. It is the most drastic change to the service in over a decade. It is also a clear message from Microsoft as the company attempts to combat growing rivals.
Interestingly, it seems Microsoft has gone to those rivals for inspiration. The new Skype is like a greatest hits of Snapchat and Facebook Messenger. That is not a complaint, by the way. By taking “inspiration” from other services, Microsoft has been able to give Skype its own Stories-like feature called Highlights.
Furthermore, the new aesthetic is designed to appeal and be user friendly. Microsoft has been working on this revamp for over a year, indicating this is not a rush to keep up with rivals, but rather a decision to modernize the service.
“If social networks have given you the stage on which to perform your life, the new Skype gives you the additional equivalent of the local coffeehouse or corner pub, where you meet people on a daily basis to deepen your relationships,” explains Amritansh Raghav, Corporate Vice President of Skype. “We call that set of interactions your personal network,” he says. The company wanted to make Skype more useable and for sharing to be easier. Only time will tell if this major change has paid off, but the early signs are positive.
As mentioned, the new Highlights features is Microsoft’s take on Stories, a tool available on Snapchat and Messenger. Users can now swipe up to call the camera, a more intuitive and rapid action which is part of Microsoft’s “camera-first” design.
Once a photo is taken, the image is editable with text, decorations, or other integrations. These images can be shared with group contacts or individuals. This is all relatively familiar, but users can now also share the images with Highlights.
A left swipe from the main screen brings up the new feature. Microsoft is making no denials that Highlights is directly inspired by Stories:
“There’s a new medium that has risen,” Raghav says. “When you think about this new way of interacting, [we want that to be] available also in this application.”
Of course, Microsoft has put its own twist on the format. Unlike Stories (which are available for a day), Highlights are available for a week, and your own content will be viewable for two years. Additionally, they are now broadcast to your entire Skype network. Instead of this, there is a follow method similar to Twitter. Only people who follow your Highlights can see the posts.
Users can interact with Highlights through emoji such as thumbs up, heart, or other faces. Equally, it is possible to type a response in a chat pane.
Bots and Add-ins
Through the Bot Framework, Microsoft has been making significant strides with bots in Skype. The company is taking this further and wants bots to automate more and interact more.
For example, Microsoft believes users will be able to chat with virtual assistant Cortana, or the MSN News focused Scoop.
Once integrated into a chat, the bot add-in can be used directly with queries, such as “Cortana, where is the nearest restaurant”. The virtual assistant will also be able to offer quick suggestions and responses that are related to a conversation.
Scoop can deliver a virtual chat where it delivers personalized news items. These chats can take place one-on-one or in a group.
Other Features and Abilities
A general redesign, Highlights and Bots are the features Microsoft is really talking up, but the company has also made some changes elsewhere.
Skype is now more customizable with colored themes, while users can also use emoticons in video calls and chats. The company also promises to upgrade video calls in the near future, bringing support for more interactions and the ability to play games or watch content in a shared situation.
This co-watching feature is getting major support from YouTube at the start. Microsoft says it is negotiating with other streaming services for added integrations.
So, all-in-all a massive update. Microsoft has rolled out the new Skype experience to Android today, with iOS getting it in a month. Apparently, this delay is because Apple’s platform does not allow staged roll outs. As for desktop, web, and Xbox, those platforms will get the upgrade in the summer.