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On Monday, Microsoft unrolled a preview version of Skype for Outlook.com, an update that brings email, instant messaging and video calls into one interface. U.K. users are the first to gain access to the new tools, but Microsoft plans to include the U.S. and Germany in coming weeks, with the rest of Outlook.com's worldwide user base to follow soon thereafter. Microsoft said it will gather user feedback and refine the experience as it expands Skype integration to additional markets.
The preview integrates Skype contacts into Outlook.com, allowing users to engage friends, family and colleagues from within the browser interface, just as they do when using the service's standard email functions. Blending Skype into Outlook requires one-time installation of a plug-in, however, and the new features support only the most recent versions of Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox. Microsoft told ZDnet that expanded browser support is coming but declined to say whether Apple's Safari is part of the company's agenda.
[ Skype might be the market leader, but it's not the only game in town. Read 6 Skype Alternatives Worth Considering. ]
Following the first announcement, Microsoft on Tuesday released a preview version of Skype Video Messaging for Windows 7 desktops, and promised that support for Windows 8 will be added "shortly." The feature allows users to record a video message and send it to Skype contacts at any time, even when the recipient is not online. Oddly, preview versions of Skype Video Messaging have been active for Mac, iPhone, iPad and Android users since February, with Microsoft's in-house OSes only now gaining support. Windows Phone and Windows 8 users can receive video messages already but until Microsoft releases another update, these users will not gain the ability to record and transmit videos of their own.
For Microsoft, the Skype announcements aren't game-changers, but they provide some hints about how VoIP might be integrated elsewhere in the Microsoft portfolio. Its Office suite has been a strong, widely-used performer for a long time, which has led some customers to question whether new versions are worth the cost and effort.
One aspect of Microsoft's response has involved an increased emphasis on mobility, cloud storage and collaboration. Skype integration fits nicely into this trend and could persuade users to upgrade rather than sticking with an old version or -- even worse for Microsoft -- exploring alternatives such as Google Docs. Windows will no doubt see heavier Skype integration in coming months as well, so for fans of online video calls, Microsoft is just getting started.
It remains to be seen whether beefed-up Skype offerings attract new customers or simply provide new tools for existing ones. Since bringing the revamped Outlook.com out of preview mode in February, Microsoft has touted the platform as not only a wild success but also a potential drain on Google's market share. Microsoft claims its webmail service has more than 60 million active users, and that around a third of accounts were established by those who also use Gmail. Skype could catalyze Microsoft's momentum -- but with competitors unlikely to stand pat, and with technologies such as WebRTC poised to make browser-based video chats a commoditized feature, the battle lines are still being drawn.
It's also noteworthy that users must merge their Microsoft and Skype accounts in order to enable video chat within Outlook.com. Free services such as Gmail and iTunes have helped Google and Apple to expand the number of users in their respective ecosystems, and to translate many of these users into paying customers. Given that Windows 8 represents a massive shift in Microsoft's design philosophy, ecosystem building is in the subtext of virtually all consumer-facing Microsoft initiatives, with Outlook.com to some extent charting a Google- or Apple-like course.
Microsoft's efforts to grow its user base have taken some criticism. Many users took umbrage, for example, with standalone Office 2013 pricing policies that initially strong-armed customers into adopting the subscription-based Office 365. Customer messaging will thus be important as Redmond continues to bring the Skype community into its fold.
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