Thursday, May 12, 2011

Skype: A Great Brand, But No Demand

Got the news this week that Microsoft is paying $8.5 billion for Skype. Wow.


Initial reaction: Good marriage. Skype is "the" free-Internet-calling brand (though Google Voice does the same thing) but it doesn't have a partner to make it ubiquitous. Meanwhile Microsoft is the ultimate brand partner – because nearly everybody uses their technology – but they lack the "friendly factor" that Skype has mastered.


Second reaction: Not going to work. Microsoft is just not good at being a friendly company. They're a very serious brand. Skype and Microsoft are just too opposite, from a brand symbolism perspective, to mesh well. If I had to put the attributes into words, Skype makes me think of "light, fluffy, creative and free," whereas I associate Microsoft with being "harsh, metal iron, stifling and greedy."


The meshing of the brands isn't the real problem though.


The real problem is that Skype is a brand without a business model.


There are two big problems with Skype. The first is easier than the second.


Problem #1 is that the technology isn't there yet. It should work "right out of the box," and yet there always seems to be some sort of glitch. The video lags, it's confusing which parts are free and which are paid, the advanced functions (like conference calling) are not intuitive. Especially from the cell.


Plus it makes your keyboard light up by turning the phone numbers to auto-dial-by-Skype, and you're never sure if that costs money or not, or how to use it. So you don't.


Problem #2 is far worse. And I don't know that Microsoft can solve it.


Video and phone don't go together.


Some subpoints here.


A – When you use the phone, normally you hold it to your ear. Now all of a sudden you have to look at it? Oh wait, Skype isn't really for regular phones, it's for phoning by computer. Which is strange. It feels strange to talk to the machine you type on. You sort of don't know how to think about it.


B – Having to be on video all the time is intrusive. Damn intrusive. It goes against the very nature of being on the phone. Do you look your best all the time? I don't. That's why I prefer to talk on the phone, not do a webcast of every conversation. That's why email is good. You can hide.


On video, you're not hiding. There is your face, for all to see. And the unorganized space around you, unless you are a compulsive neat freak. Your coffee cup. Your papers. Your cords. Undermining all attempts to seem composed. Undermining your personal brand.


One time I had to do a one-minute video on personal branding. A homemade one. Do you know that I recorded that video 36 times before I got it right? Even then I didn't like the way I look. I was embarrassed.


This is the problem that Skype confronts. Most of us look bad on video.


Try it out for yourself. Test the monitor. You do not look good.


Why then would you voluntarily use Skype?


The technology factor and the human factor are business problems not yet solved. Fundamentally, the product is not yet ready to meet the needs of the customer.


With one exception.


Do you remember on Star Trek when they sat in the control chairs and interacted with other species as if they were on TV?


That would be an outstanding use of Skype. Bringing live teleconferencing to the people in an affordable way. Saving the money and the hassle of plane travel. Undercutting the price that vendors charge for fancy teleconference rooms right now.


If Microsoft can figure out a way to set people up with video monitors at work, to facilitate remote meetings and telework on a local, national, and international level, then they will be able to hit this one out of the park.


However – and this is a big however – to do this well they will have to modify or perhaps chop up the Skype brand a bit.


The initial, bubbly part they should leave intact at the consumer level. Let it be free, let us muck around with it, there will always be people who can figure out a use from day to day. Who don't mind being on camera.


For example people traveling who want to connect with loved ones in a closer way than the sometimes off-putting telephone, text or email.


Microsoft should devise a brand architecture that takes a piece of the Skype brand identity – maybe the blue color, maybe the S, an element of it that makes it recognizable to the consumer as accessible – and integrate that into a more businesslike offering. The kind that people know and trust Microsoft with. The businesslike offering should be a business-to-business model. One that helps businesses cut costs and increase productivity by integrating telework and tele-meetings via ubiquitous video-conference calls.


I think that Microsoft can realistically do that. I think that Skype can become useful that way. I even think that I could bear being on camera if it meant reducing my commuting time and travel.


It will be interesting to see how this one turns out, and whether Google interrupts this grand plan with a version of Google Voice that is just as appealing.


As you fight it out, Microsoft and Google (and whoever else) –


Good luck!