Microsoft buying Skype is like Seattle buying Italian streetcars.
On the surface, it seems like an outrageously expensive indulgence.
But if you can ignore the insane amount of money being thrown around and focus only on how it will help a few businesses, it makes some sense.
Microsoft already has powerful and widely used software for making phone and video calls and communicating over the Internet. Its messaging systems are among its crown jewels and used by far more people than Skype.
Similarly, Seattle is served by a vast and reliable bus system and is building up a light rail network.
But it still decided to spend $60 million – not counting priceless right-of-way – on streetcars that duplicate several bus routes. Sound Transit’s going to spend another $132 million more more streetcar service.
Some people think the streetcars are neat, and they add flair and freshness to the mix of infrastructure in Seattle. But they’ll never carry as many passengers as Metro and they’ll probably never pay for themselves.
The trolley is largely an amenity, increasing the appeal of commercial property mostly owned by Paul Allen.
City leaders who took flak for this quasi subsidy may now feel vindicated by Allen’s success redeveloping South Lake Union. The area along the trolley route has transformed into a vibrant, active neighorborhood anchored by Amazon.com’s new headquarters.
You can’t say the area blossomed because of the trolley but it helped.
With Skype, Microsoft now has a groovier, Web-native service that complements its established, industrial-strength communication systems.
Skype and particularly its video calling capabilities will be a focal point for the bundle of online services Microsoft will offer to consumers and businesses. Having one killer app in the bundle is enough to get people to enter Microsoft’s online realm, or at least prevent them from logging into a competing suite of online services.
My guess is that Skype and video messaging will also be a cornerstone of Windows 8 or whatever the next version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system is called. It’s designed to work well on portable devices running the tiny processors used in smartphones, where video calling is coming to be expected as a standard feature.
Apple and Google have already developed video calling services for mobile devices and PCs but they don’t yet have the critical mass of Skype. Microsoft has struggled to build a critical mass in search and now it has a head start as the next phase of online messaging is developed on fast, new 4G wireless networks.
Meanwhile Microsoft’s going to use Skype to boost the appeal and reach of its Xbox, phone, Web mail and communication software products.
In its release, Microsoft noted that Skype has acquired the intellectual property powering its network. Perhaps that’s a signal that Microsoft will assert its ownership of the patents, which could limit what competitors can do in the space or require them to send royalties to Redmond.
Skeptics expect Microsoft to fumble Skype somehow. To avoid this, Microsoft took the unusual step of creating an entirely new, autonomous group for Skype, giving the relatively small business organizational stature comparable to that of the massive Xbox, Office and Windows groups. Skype Chief Executive Tony Bates will be president of the Microsoft Skype Division, reporting to Steve Ballmer.
Microsoft actually has done pretty well with its messaging acquisitions. Key elements of Outlook were acquired, and it’s now the most widely used email system in the world and an essential tool for most business PC users.
Microsoft also spent crazy money buying Hotmail in 1997 for around $400 million, when it was competing with AOL and Yahoo and was building out its suite of dotcom-era online services.
Microsoft’s anxiety about falling behind Apple and Google no doubt led the company to overpay for Skype. But if the team in Redmond can avoid crashing their new trolley and it helps deliver a few big hits, the cost won’t matter in the long run.