Last month Skype made an announcement that seemed to attract relatively little comment in the unified communications community, but which I thought was really interesting. They hired David Gurle as the new General Manager and Vice President of the Skype for Business unit. No big deal on the surface, but David Gurle has quite the reputation. Gurle spent more than three years running Microsoft’s Real Time Communications business. At Microsoft, he oversaw the development of collaboration products including NetMeeting, Windows Messenger and Office Communications Server. Roll forward a few weeks and Avaya’s Dr Alan Baratz made a slip during their partner conference that some interpreted as an indication of an imminent announcement of an alliance with Skype. All of this prompted me to think about the use of Skype in business and whether they are preparing to make a serious assault on the unified communications market.
Skype certainly have an interesting starting point for any attempt to build a unified communications presence. Although videoconferencing use is expanding rapidly, 79% of respondents to a recent survey by Global IP Solutions said that they currently use a consumer application such as Skype as their primary videoconferencing application. The use of Skype is also rapidly expanding for international traffic and many businesses are becoming more open to using hosted solutions for business applications, rather than insisting on premise-based equipment. Skype also carries many of the features that users would typically expect from a unified communications solution in a user-friendly interface that makes it easy for first time users to pick up straight away.
Having said all of that, Skype attempts to grow in the business market to date have been somewhat patchy. Skype for Asterisk, which was launched in 2008 is probably their most serious effort so far, allowing users of Asterisk-based PBX systems to place, receive and transfer Skype calls from PBX deskphones. Users can make Skype-to-Skype calls and the Skype client software is integrated with the PBX, which enables users to use Skype IM, presence and video conferencing. The main benefits for business are to reduce trunking costs and to give users in small businesses the opportunity to use a simple interface for UC type features. Yet because the market for Asterisk remains fairly small, the growth of Skype use in business from this avenue is likely to be limited.
Skype for SIP was a further attempt to make in-roads into the business market. Launched last year, its main purpose is to provide interoperability between PBXs and the Skype network. At launch, the software supported PBXs from Nortel, Cisco and SIP-based Asterisk switches, but reviews were somewhat mixed – it didn’t support some Skype features and SIP to Skype calling features were also somewhat limited. There have also been many other third-party attempts to build Skype gateways and even a custom built Asterisk platform (FREETALK Connect), which offers great functionality, but limited scalability. So most of the moves so far to take Skype into the business mainstream have actually been quite niche in their approach. Skype penetration in the enterprise has remained the domain of enterprising employees who sidestep conventional IT to install the software, in order to meet a specific need.
This need not be the end of the story though – and it probably isn’t if the Gurle hire is a statement of intent. Skype has much to gain in the business market, not least an even greater share of the estimated 406 billion international minutes of calls made annually. But I suspect that its future is probably not in partnerships with PBX companies and niche open source players – at least not if it wishes to move into the business mainstream. Instead, I would anticipate Skype becoming an even more disruptive technology and following a similar model to Salesforce.com. They could offer business users a combination of the features that many like, with the control that any self-respecting CIO needs, such as the ability to switch users on (and off), control usage and even connect domains for inter-company presence between trusted partners. Now that could be a powerful combination – and an interesting story to follow in the future.