Skype at 10: How an Estonian startup transformed itself (and the world)

Chapter 5: Back to the future

"Ten years after something fantastic comes along and changes the way millions of people live, people learn to expect the fantastic."

In “Back to the Future Part II,” when Marty McFly set his time machine for the year 2015, he arrived to find his beloved skateboard had been supplanted – packs of future teenagers instead traveled by hoverboard.

Yet Marty was the only one amazed by this. That’s the thing about invention, be it hoverboards, rehydrating pizza ovens, self-lacing sneakers, controller-free gaming or Internet telephony. Ten years after something fantastic comes along and changes the way millions of people live, people learn to expect the fantastic.

That certainly sets the bar high for Skype’s next decade.

“Technology has evolved so much in the last 10 years that the next generation just thinks being next to each other on video wherever you are is simply the way life works,” says Elisa Steele, chief marketing officer for Skype at Microsoft. “Now it’s about making that connection very real, very easy and incredibly simple. Skype has to continue to disrupt to continue to be successful, and we’re up for the challenge.”

There may have been champagne and cupcakes at each of Skype’s offices to celebrate its 10th birthday on Aug. 29, but that was the extent of the laurel resting.

Rather, Skype is like a sweaty, swinging Rocky who has won a few fights but is still doing pull-ups and sprinting up and down the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to prepare for the significant challenges ahead. Engineers and scientists are hard at work in labs and offices at Microsoft headquarters and all over the world to make sure Skype stays the incumbent in cutting-edge communications – a leader with the drive and hunger of a challenger.

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“Skype needs to continue to disrupt and transform. That’s where Skype started, and that’s what Skype has to continue to do,” Steele says. “I think the future of Skype is actually just about always being on and connected.”

At Microsoft, this means letting Skype continue to grow and evolve and do what it does best as a stand-alone product, but it also means looking for ways to insert Skype technology into its very DNA, from Windows to Xbox to Microsoft Outlook.

“I was very, very pleased when we decided to sell the company to Microsoft because I thought it would be a great home. Microsoft is a company that excels on software and technology, which will help Skype grow even more,” Zennström says. “I think what's important now for Skype is to keep its identity, keep its core purpose and continue to be very simple for people to use, while taking advantage of all the possibilities and synergies at Microsoft.”

Its core purpose is, and remains, communication. But Skype has already reinvented the way people communicate with each other and how closely they are connected. So what’s next? How can Skype evolve to make communication even easier and better for its users?

"Skype needs to continue to disrupt and transform. That’s where Skype started, and that’s what Skype has to continue to do."
- Elisa Steele , chief marketing officer for Skype

“I think the future is about Skype staying as personal as it is today, and as everywhere as it is today, but becoming even more mobile, and enabling you to share in entirely new ways to continue to warp space and collapse the distance between people,” says Mark Gillett, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Skype and Lync.

Maybe it means you don’t really press a button, Steele says, but make gestures and voice commands to connect. Perhaps it means Skype encounters become less scheduled and more ubiquitous, whether you’re at the grocery store on your mobile device or in the living room in front of your television and Xbox One.

Imagine an open audio and video connection spread across your life – your mobile and household devices – that enables you to talk openly while you work, watch TV or make dinner “as casually as if you were in the same house,” says Longbottom, senior director of product marketing.

“Skype has to stake a claim to that. I dream of walking in my front door and saying hello to my mom even though she’s thousands of miles away – just starting a casual conversation as I take my coat off and put my keys in the tray,” he says.

Perhaps it also means becoming a communication companion that not only enables you to speak to loved ones in every way you want to – on video, in a group, by instant message, on a mobile device – but that is also smart enough to help you archive those memories. To know you have an easily searchable archive of the most important conversations of your life with the most important people in your life stored safely for you is one of the most powerful things technology can do for a person, Longbottom says.

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“I still wish I could recover all of the chat messages I had with my wife when we first started dating. It would be fun to go back and look at those again,” he says. “There are rich and emotional experiences constantly happening on Skype. Better preserving of our memories feels within our grasp. It’s not fantasy.”

A decade from now, with distance conquered and communication at a higher premium than ever, Skype is well-positioned to become even more central across the devices people use at home, work and play, Gillett says. Incorporating Skype into Microsoft Outlook and other real-time communication, using Skype with your Xbox One and television in the living room, giving voice Skype commands with the power of Kinect – “Microsoft is good for Skype,” Gillett says.

“Our move to Microsoft really accelerated our ability to move many of Skype’s functions to the cloud and to be better for your mobile devices and to work across all of your devices from the cloud,” Gillett says. “There’s a real focus as we move forward on sharing and breaking down boundaries – between the personal and the professional, between home and work. The future stretches out ahead of us, and I think it is a really exciting one.”

If the first decade was about disruption and innovation, the next decade will be about strengthening the connection to users – largely by helping them strengthen their connections to each other, Steele says.

“I think Skype had opportunity before Microsoft to be global and to touch people all over the world. But now, as a part of Microsoft, it really can only get better,” Steele says. “The possibilities have really only just begun.”


Photography courtesy of:
Design Blitz
Ergo Esken
Evelyn Parv
James Bowman
Jason Strong Photography
John Clang
Maido Parv
Paul Vachier
Vladimir Morozov


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