Skype and Microsoft Could Work Very Well…. or not

I’ve read a fair bit of head-scratching over Microsoft’s US$8.5 billion acquisition of Skype, particularly after the challenges Skype had after it was acquired by, and then released from, eBay.

Skype never made sense as part of eBay. eBay is about commerce. Skype is about communication. (Paypal, which is about money, fit with eBay perfectly, and now is possibly a more valuable asset than eBay.)

For Microsoft, the lion’s share of revenues are still generated by Windows and Office. But you cannot go to sleep on Xbox or Windows Phone 7. The Xbox 360, with Xbox Live and Kinect, is perhaps the leading entrant in the living-room-colonization race. In my household, we dropped DirecTV (“cut the cord”) and purchased an Xbox 360 with Kinect, and signed up for Xbox Live. Thanks to streaming Netflix and ESPN (as well as an 8-week-old and a two-and-a-half year old, which means we’re home a lot and can’t really do much besides watch TV), our TV experience is about 95% Xbox-mediated.

And have you played with the voice controls for Netflix via Kinect? Sweeeeet.

And while Windows Phone 7 hasn’t made an appreciable dent in the smartphone race, it has a lot going for it — Microsoft’s giant piles of cash, Nokia’s commitment to using it, and the fact that it’s a cleverly designed smartphone OS, which didn’t try to just mimic Apple (ahem, Android), but do something distinct and potentially meaningful.

Now, what does Skype have? According to the reports, 170 million active users. And around 30 million concurrent users online, and as you can see from this Skype fanatic’s recent blog post, that number has been rising faster and faster.

Skype is also positioned very well for the technological advances we know are coming, particularly 4G. 4G will make mobile video calls a reality, and Skype is far ahead of all competitors in terms of quality and scale of their service. Additionally, as more and more televisions become connected to the internet (either directly or through some type of set-top box (cable/satellite, game console, or Roku-like device)), and those televisions become equipped with input devices (microphones, as we see with Kinect, cameras as we’re starting to see with some TVs), Skype is ideally suited to be the tool to tie all this together.

It’s also worth noting that for voice and video calls online, Skype is the pre-eminent brand. This Wired article mentions how Windows Live Messenger offers the same functionality and has a much larger user base… But how many people are using Messenger’s voice and video capabilities? I would guess that the overwhelming majority stick with instant messaging (as they do with iChat, AIM, and Yahoo! Messenger).

So, Skype has the leading mindshare and technological base for an activity that, while currently popular, will simply explode in the next 5 or so years as 4G, broadband, and cameras and microphones become basic internet plumbing. Skype will make Microsoft’s current product lines more desirable, and its potential is too great to really understand (it feels a bit like when Google bought YouTube.)

Now, by no means is this a slam dunk. The biggest challenge Microsoft will face in making the most of Skype is organizational. If you read about the acquisition of Danger and the misery that was the Kin, you know that Microsoft can be something of a shit show, particularly when there’s internal competition. One hopes that they’ve learned from that horrid experience, but I also know that organizational change is really freakin’ hard. Microsoft would probably be best served by simply leaving Skype alone (as much as possible). Skype needs to be free to build for all platforms, but there are definitely opportunities where Skype can integrate with other Microsoft components to create something special and new.

We’ll see.

TED, The New New Media Brand

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been fascinated by the ascension of TED as a media brand. TED began in 1984, and for the longest time was an exclusive confab for the smarterati, overseen by its host, curator, and Buddha-figure, Richard Saul Wurman. Since 2003, TED has been run by Chris Anderson, who made his fortune as the head of Imagine Publishing, which published titles like Macaddict, CD-ROM today, PC Gamer, Next Generation, and a host of other computer magazines.

In June 2006, TED did something that would alter its standing forever — it began TEDTalks, a podcast of presentations from TED. (And much credit for TEDTalks goes to my pal June Cohen, whom I’ve known since she wrote about cool sites for Hotwired.) Many people were skeptical — here’s a conference that, in 2007, was going to cost $6000 to attend, and you were giving away the content?

Well, suffice to say that such a giveaway made the conference itself all the more desirable, because people realized what they were missing.

But more importantly, it turned TED from being just a conference into a media brand. People all over the world began watching the videos, and spreading them around. Some of the talks have been viewed millions of times. This has allowed TED to bring on sponsors (initially BMW, then Autodesk) who, I’m pretty sure, underwrite the whole online venture. It’s gotten so that TEDTalks now features presentations from similar events (such as eg and Lift) so that they can keep their pipeline full.

One of the genius elements of TED is the 18-minute limit on talk length. It turns out that 18 minutes isn’t just great for the audience in the room, but it’s a nearly ideal length for a video podcast. (I would argue that the number of people willing to watch an 18 minute talk is an order of magnitude larger than those willing to watch a 45 or 60 minute talk).

So, TED has become a new new media brand. It recognized that what the conference supplied was content that could be leveraged in other ways. What’s been interesting to me is to see how other media brand are adapting. Most notable is The New Yorker, which in the past few years has began its own conference series, which is quite expensive to attend, and has it’s own podcast (iTunes).

Smart media companies are realizing they have to go identify new ways to engage with their audiences, whether its podcasts, conferences, etc. The New Yorker was famously a break-even (if that) publication… I would bet that the conferences bring in higher profits than the print publication. (The scuttlebutt on O’Reilly is that their conferences are now the cash cow, which makes sense, as no one goes into book publishing to make money).

This has become a somewhat haggard and not really tied together post, I realize. What am I saying, in short? If you can, start a conference. If you have a conference, *give away the presentations*. You’ll receive immense value through the associations your content offers, and desire of people to connect in real-time and real-space.