TechRadar caught up for an in-depth chat about all things Skype-related this week, with Mike Bartlett, Skype's Director of Product Management for Windows.
Mike, an affable and laid-back South African, gave us the full run-down of what Skype has in store for later this year and for the longer term, offering an exclusive glimpse into the future of VoIP telephony.
TechRadar: Hi Mike, before we get into discussing present and future projects and Skype products, can you give us the quick potted history of the company?
Mike Bartlett: Well, I think fundamentally that Skype co-founders Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis had a very simple vision, which was to enable people to very easily make free calls over the internet. The key to their success, and Skype's initial success, was that, out of the box, it just worked. You didn't need to sit for hours tweaking firewall settings and configuring this, that and the other. All you did was install Skype, set up your Skype name and you were right there, ready to go.
TechRadar: What about other similar products around prior to Skype's launch?
Mike Bartlett: Well, you had stuff like NetMeeting many years ago, which never seemed to work. I was an ex-programmer and I could never make it work properly. So that's where I think Skype came in and changed the game.
TechRadar: Skype is now pretty well established amongst technophiles. What do you think were the key strategies in establishing Skype and getting it to where it is today?
Mike Bartlett: I think the basic value proposition of it. Just the offer to 'call people for free' initially was what helped start it. There was no SkypeOut or anything like that, originally.
Also, the execution from the original team that started Skype – which was an incredibly smart, committed team. I remember when I first started here three years ago and you walked in and hit this wave of noise and enthusiasm. I've never worked with such a group of smart and committed people before. Getting the right people to build the product was key.
Second to that was then opening up Skype by offering SkypeIn and SkypeOut which allowed you to call people who weren't Skype users on their existing mobile or land-line numbers. Certainly, the uptake on those paid services has been fantastic, as our revenues show! A lot of people don't even use Skype to make free calls. They come to us for the value that our paid services offer.
Also, by nature, Skype is a viral product. If you get started and you want to talk to other people for free, then you have to get those other people on your contact list. So someone who might be an early adopter will get Skype and it goes from there. You can just look at myself as a good example – when I got Skype around four years ago, before I joined, to stay in touch with my parents in South Africa. They are not early adopters, but they installed Skype as soon as I did. So it's just that natural viral model – the fact that you need people to talk to on your contact list, has fuelled the success.
TechRadar: What are your user figures right now?
Mike Bartlett: 338 million registered users, 54% year-on-year growth from July last year. So still pretty strong!
TechRadar: What else do you do in terms of marketing Skype?
Mike Bartlett: Well, we don't do very much in the way of 'above the line' marketing. Probably the most above the line thing I've ever seen was down to the recent partnership with 3 – when I remember getting on a train and being faced with hundreds of Skype logos looking at me from the back covers of the free sheet newspapers! But 'viral' is still the main reason for our growth.
In particular, we have seen a lot of growth coming out of North America. We're currently doing some stuff with Oprah over there, for example, where Oprah is using Skype's high quality video because the set-up and is much easier and the quality is better than what's on offer from satellite firms. Of course, we've also had a lot of support from [parent company] eBay in North America, as they have a big footprint there.
TechRadar: What's the latest on Skype's high quality video offering?
Mike Bartlett: High quality video was launched late last year. We looked at video calling and wanted to increase the quality we were offering at the time. We were leading the market in terms of the quality we were offering and we wanted to quadruple the pixel density we were offering – so we went from 320 x 240 up to 640 x 480 resolution as well as increasing the number of frames per second from 15fps to 30fps, so the picture was more fluid.
We worked very closely with Logitech to develop this. You'll find that there are lots of web cameras on the market that offer those numbers on the box, but that is generally for still pictures not for live motion picture. So what you will find is that the computer requirements needed to compress and send a 640 x 480 picture at 30 frames per second over the internet – well, we just weren't getting the results we wanted with other cameras – and Logitech did some work to move some of the CPU constraints into the actual camera so we could have some space to do the compression and all that sort of thing.
Since we've launched high quality video it is still limited to, I think, around four cameras that can do it. Also remember that the high quality video service is not only about the resolution and the frames per second. It's also how it deals with lighting, for example, if a user is in low-lighting conditions, as they are often in their bedrooms and so on.
Over twenty-five per cent of Skype calls is now over video. It's certainly something we're very focused on. You'll be seeing a lot more from us on the video front next year.
TechRadar: What of competitors? MSN and the like?
Mike Bartlett: Skype is providing a more intimate type of communication that would you would find on MSN Messenger, for example. MSN Messenger is a more IM-centric offering. With Skype, we have instant messaging obviously, but people are using us more for calling, more for video… In some ways you could say that we are competing with MSN, but we actually find that a lot of our users actually run Skype alongside MSN and other IM programmes, where they have their larger, less-intimate network. And they have the people that they really want to talk to and really want to share these intimate experiences on their Skype network.
TechRadar: Can you tell us a little more about Skype's Developer Zone?
Mike Bartlett: Well we do a few things to enable developers to build things on top of Skype, we have a set of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) for programmers to write their own applications. A great example of what's on offer is a piece of software called Skylook which takes Skype and Outlook and kind of fuses the two together – so from Outlook you can immediately click on a contact and create a call with them and so on.
Users can go to an area on our site called Skype Extras in order to discover what's on offer from developers. You can see in the gallery area there what the most popular downloads are, you can grab gaming applications from there (so you can play chess and backgammon with friends, and so on). At the same time as being on a call, you're watching your opponent via the webcam, which is really exciting.
There's a lot of video applications too. You might want to turn your face into a parrot, for example. Which is very cool! And uses some pretty sophisticated face-tracking technology, mimicking your mouth movements and so on. All of these types of things bring a lot more richness and depth to the overall experience.
TechRadar: What's the incentive for the developers?
Mike Bartlett: They can sell their applications in the usual types of way, offering a free trial and so on. We've built a payment mechanism into the developer zone, so users can easily pay for something out of their Skype credit. They don't have that friction of having to go off and enter their credit card details in another way or whatever.
TechRadar: So it's a similar model to Apple's recently launched App Store?
Mike Bartlett: Yeah, that's a pretty close analogy.
TechRadar: So what are the latest product offerings from Skype?
Mike Bartlett: There are a few things. Subscriptions launched last month and is doing pretty well, which allows people to pay a monthly fee and get unlimited calling to landlines, either in their own country or a group of countries or worldwide (with varying fees for each). The value offering with Subscriptions is incredible. People are really picking up on them. We had launched something in the past called SkypePro, but this latest offering is really taking off.
So that's on the paid side. On the free side, we're very engaged in our new version of the desktop software – Skype 4.0 – which is about two things.
Firsty, it's about making Skype a little simpler. As you pointed out, many early adopters have already got on board with Skype, but we are increasingly seeing lots more novice computer using downloading and using Skype. There were two things in particular which we needed to address here – the user interface (UI) was built four years ago as this kind of skinny thing that sat on the side of your desktop and we've built a lot of richness on that over time (IM, file and video sending and so on) – so we have gone for a larger UI and people are now becoming much more aware of stuff that's in there that they maybe didn't know about before. So users are becoming much more aware of the SMS services, of how to import all their contacts (from Outlook, Yahoo or wherever). It's also loads easier to configure all your hardware – your webcams and headsets.
Secondly, there's a much bigger canvas for video and everything works together well now in one window (where before you had numerous windows open, which could prove confusing). You can have chat and video and file/photo sharing and so on all in the same window side by side. You can then easily go back and find that photo that you just sent over to your mum, or whatever it is. So that's all in beta right now and it's coming along really nicely, we're getting some great feedback.
It's a big change. Nobody else has attempted to do a communications client in a larger form factor than what we are used to today. I often talk about it internally in these terms – six or seven years ago, you would listen to music in WinAmp and now everybody uses something like iTunes, which has rich, open browsing and all of that. The difference being that WinAmp is an application you use to play music and iTunes is an application you use to experience music.
Which is exactly what we are doing with desktop communications. It's not just an application any more, communication is an experience. It's something that we do every single day. It's core to human beings, wanting to communicate. So what we are doing is trying to make that a richer experience for people.
TechRadar: What about mobile? The 3 Skypephone mark two is out soon?
Mike Bartlett: Yeah, that's due in September. There's also Skype through your mobile, which is also in beta at the moment, that allows you to download and install Skype onto a number of existing devices. In the past, we struggled a little bit with mobile because you have all these different platforms – you have Symbian, Java and so on – and we were trying to address all of those in one go, with numerous different versions.
TechRadar: What about the conflict between Skype and traditional telephone companies and mobile networks?
Mike Bartlett: Well, you can see on 3, for example, they see Skype as an application that can leverage an unlimited data plan, so they are not as threatened by us. They are getting a good subscription base value and number of new customers and retaining customers. And we are providing a good application for their customers.
TechRadar: What about the various problems users report with Skype? Spamming? Calls dropping out? How are you tackling those problems?
Mike Bartlett: Well, look at email, for example you get a lot more spam there than you do on something like Skype! But sure, we are doing a lot at the moment to try to protect our users from spamming. In the past we had some problems where people were being contacted in an unsolicited way and we didn't have mechanisms in place that we could use to block those sorts of things. We have those now and over the last year we've been actively attacking this problem. If you get contacted by somebody you don't want to contact you, you can now very easily immediately block that person. Also, when you get authorization requests from another user, we now hide that user's picture as well – so you don't get any embarrassing pictures popping up on your screen! [laughs]
We're looking across the entire peer-to-peer cloud and trying to detect these things early. We have a dedicated team of people working on this and we feel that we are on top of it and will continue to be on top of it.
In terms of call quality, we also do a lot. We have large teams of people here, in Estonia, in Stockholm and in the US concentrating on improving call quality. Calls are, obviously, going across the internet – we're leveraging the internet, so if a router falls down somewhere, then we transition the call across to somewhere else to make sure call quality is consistent. We're also doing stuff with wideband and ultra-wideband, where the quality of the call sounds better than traditional telephone calls, because we are utilizing a wider range of sound technology so we are not cancelling out the top and bottom ranges so much, so the voice sounds a lot crisper. We're doing a lot of research on this right now. We feel that we have the strongest call quality out there and we want to maintain this position.
TechRadar: What of small business users? That seems to be more of a focus for you than it has been in the past.
Mike Bartlett: Yeah, over thirty per cent of our users also run Skype in their business environment, which has grown considerably over the last few years. So we're developing products like the Skype for Business control panel – which lets small business owners control all their Skype Credit expenditure, buying up a chunk for a group of employees and so on.
As for issues with firewalls, particularly with bigger organisations, what we don't want to ever to is to circumvent those firewalls. Which is a bad thing and would make us very unpopular! We just need to continue to work to educate people that Skype is a safe and secure product to use in the enterprise and help them understand the value it brings – in terms of cost-savings and in terms of ease of use for video conferencing. Skype feels much more like being in the same room as the other people you are on the video conference with – so you have all the concurrent cost savings in terms of time, travel and so on.
TechRadar: What of the longer term? What of next year and beyond?
Mike Bartlett: Firstly, video is key to what we are doing. Making that video calling experience richer. Continuing to improve upon the quality of the video.
Secondly, mobility. We want to get Skype beyond desktop downloads. You can have this video call, this instant messaging session, wherever you are. What we are doing with MySpace is also interesting in this area. We just want to keep working on making Skype more ubiquitous and more available.