Skype for Windows 8: A “New” Skype Experience

Skype.Windows8.Logog 1 Skype for Windows 8: A New Skype ExperienceEarlier this week Skype announced a “New” Skype for Windows 8; Not Your Skype for Windows “Classic”.

Today Skype has launched, coincident with the launch of Microsoft’s  new Windows 8 operating system, Skype for Windows 8. It’s the first major Microsoft offering that basically embeds Skype into the entire Windows user experience. Access to Skype’s real time conversations is available on an ad hoc basis while also delivering notifications of incoming messages and calls.

Over the past few days I interviewed Piero Sierra, Skype’s Director of Program Management, who is responsible for the development of all Skype desktop and mobile products. I have also spent several hours on a “legacy” PC with a mouse, getting experience, first, with Windows 8 itself on a non-touch display and then with Skype for Windows 8.

First a few overview points:

Think of Skype for Window 8 as a Skype client for an independent operating system, deploying as unique a user interface as Skype for Mac, Skype for iOS, etc. It takes full advantage of the unique features of Windows 8 such as displaying apps in full screen, swiping horizontally across displays of tiles, contacts, applications and more, and using a unique “snap” feature to display two applications concurrently with one as the primary display and the other as a right or left sidebar display. As with Windows 8 itself, if you have a non-touch display, get ready to run your mouse to the corners and edges of your display.

Windows 8 has two basic modes: Windows 8 Modern (formerly “Metro”) and Windows Desktop. The latter is the more familiar Windows Desktop with the ability to display multiple windows, etc. In fact you can install and use Skype for Windows Classic in the Desktop mode. Switching between the two modes is simple and fast.

Win8.StartScreen2 thumb Skype for Windows 8: A New Skype ExperienceWindows 8 launches with the Windows 8 Start Screen, shown on the right, composed of tiles representing applications and folders. Click on a tile and the application launches. If Skype for Windows 8 is open, you will see a recent chat message, if closed, you will see simply the Skype logo on the Skype tile. Simply click on that tile and you are logged into the application. You will also see tiles for Desktop applications on this Start screen; if Skype for Windows Classic is installed, you will see a tile with the legacy “S” Skype logo.

While Skype for Windows 8 delivers a unique user experience, if you want the complete set of the legacy features of Skype, you will also want to install Skype for Windows Classic on the Desktop. More on this later.

Sierra outlined three goals for Skype for Windows 8:

  • Create an “always reachable” experience.
  • Make Skype “more beautiful” and easier to use
  • Centre the experience around people

Skype for Windows 8 remains “always reachable” in the background; in effect it is being designed for “extreme” mobile environments. It is architected to eliminate battery drain when there is no Skype activity. As a consequence it also minimizes CPU impact on desktop and laptop PC’s. As soon as a call or chat message comes in, a notification comes up on the display and you can act on it appropriately.

S4W8.TwoTaskManagers. thumb Skype for Windows 8: A New Skype ExperienceHowever, when there is no Skype activity, Skype for Windows 8 takes advantage of a new Windows 8 feature, Windows Notification Services, to put Skype in a totally dormant mode when there is no activity. As a result it takes up no CPU cycles when not in use. In the example on the left, the top Task Manager image is when Skype is dormant but when I sent a chat message, Skype became active temporarily using some CPU cycles, as shown in the lower image. You can actually watch the CPU cycles drop to zero a few seconds after a message is sent.

While this feature speeds up general operation of Windows 8 applications on any device, it definitely has an impact on extending the battery life of mobile devices. Skype hopes to take advantage of similar features in iOS and Android to reduce the background activity, and increase the battery life, of the respective tablet and smartphone devices. In the image above, the second Skype process represents Skype for Windows Classic running in the Windows 8 Desktop, using CPU cycles even when not active.

S4W8.Presence.2Choices thumb Skype for Windows 8: A New Skype ExperienceOne demand on user cycles in the past has been the need to keep up with presence status of all your Contacts; for those with several hundred contacts that can become a battery and CPU resource drain. Whereas previously Skype had five or six “presence” status settings, in Skype for Windows 8, there are only two settings: Available and Invisible. You can still enter a mood message which, at your discretion, can include more details about your status.

Once launched Skype opens up in a “dashboard” screen showing recent chat conversation excerpts, “Favorite” Contacts (order alphabetically) and several of your most recently active Contacts:S4W8.Dashboard thumb Skype for Windows 8: A New Skype Experience

There are several points to note, employing Windows 8 Modern features incorporated into Skype for Windows 8 and built using the Windows 8 Design Language developed by Microsoft for its products, graphics and user interfaces:

Single application full-screen display (or “Windows 8 does not support windows”): when in Windows 8 Modern mode, any application written for Windows 8 only displays full screen. Each of the screens of Skype for Windows is a full screen display. Sometimes all that white background, especially on a large display, may want you to look for your sunglasses. But recall that, on any tablet, there is only one application in the display at any given time. It’s provides a focus on the task at hand without distractions, yet other applications are immediately available in the background with notification features to alert the user to new activity in real time.

However, there are some ways to show complementary information while in an application:

Left-right scrolling: Where a screen. such as Contacts shown below, have icons that go beyond the screen size, you can scroll left and right using either a swipe, on a touch screen or touchpad, or the scroll wheel on a mouse. What is shown below are my “L’ to “S” Contacts who were “Available” (i.e. Online) at the time of the screen capture. As seen at the upper left, there is an option to display all of your contacts. Scroll to the left to see the Contacts before “L” and to the right for those starting with “S” or later.

S4W8.Contacts.25Oct12 thumb Skype for Windows 8: A New Skype Experience

What is missing is the ability to “search” for a contact. Also the Contacts screen does not support “Lists” at this time.

Top of screen: on many of the Skype screens, such as during a conversation session or when on the Contact screen shown above, you can run your cursor to the top of the screen and right-click on the hand icon that appears. (Update: right click on a blank location on any Skype for Windows 8 screen and this banner will show up.) You will then see a banner showing the most recent conversations:

S4W8.Banner.Conversations thumb Skype for Windows 8: A New Skype Experience

Click on any of the conversations and you move to that conversation on the full screen.

Snap: Windows 8 does contain a feature that allows you to display one application as a sidebar on the left or right of the display. It’s a fixed width but does lets you work with, say, a browser or Office document while continuing with a Skype conversation. In the example below, a Skype chat session is being followed while viewing a recent Voice On The Web post. During a voice or video call it displays the Contact’s avatar or video, with the ability to bring up a chat session.

S4W8.Snap .skype .Browser thumb Skype for Windows 8: A New Skype Experience

The above are a few examples of how Skype for Windows 8 uses unique Windows 8 features to launch, manage and follow your conversations. in the end, it will be the end user who makes the call about being “more beautiful” and easier to use.  It’s not a huge learning curve, once you have mastered Windows 8 itself. I found switching between Windows 8 applications and the desktop to be snappy with minimal delays or hesitation.

As for a call itself: the image below comes from a video call with my website developer. It starts out full screen but you can use the third icon in the call management bar to bring up the chat session.

S4W8.BostonDVVideoCall thumb Skype for Windows 8: A New Skype Experience

S4W8.UserChatInfo thumb Skype for Windows 8: A New Skype ExperienceWhen in a chat session, as shown on the right, are displayed icons for launching a voice or video call as well as the “+” icon for adding Contacts to create a group conversation. Below are the Contact’s phone information as well as his/her local time and mood message. Mousing and clicking over a phone number will launch a SkypeOut call.

One could go on forever about using Skype for Windows 8; however, at this point it’s probably best that users explore it and make the call on ease-of-use. The learning curve was fairly fast. Associated with the “easier-to-use” goal was making its operation more intuitive. Once you become familiar with Windows 8 gestures and mouse operations, in practice I found it fairly intuitive for finding contacts, launching conversations and answering inbound activity.

As for being People centred, the Skype for Windows 8 dashboard, shown above, has a focus on the most currently relevant contacts displaying excerpts of recent conversations, “Favorite” Contacts and the most recently contacted Contacts. It is also linked to the Windows 8 People application, a universal hub for accessing not only contact information but also following a contact’s other social networking application activities such as Twitter, FaceBook and LinkedIn.

Users log into Skype using their Microsoft account ID but since the user has already launched into Windows via the same ID, simply launch Windows 8, click on the Skype tile and Skype starts up and is available for launching conversations. No need to enter a password a second time.

Soon to come are linkages to Outlook.com, Windows Live Messenger. While there is no linkage to Facebook, one can interact with Facebook friends via the People application.

As for the features seen in Skype for Windows Classic: Skype for Windows 8 supports

  • instant messaging (Chat, two state presence, emoticons)
  • group chat
  • voice calling
  • group voice calling, with up to 25 participants
  • one-to-one video calling.
  • SkypeOut calls to the PSTN
  • SMS messaging

However, support for group video calling remains a work-in-progress at Skype along with screen sharing.  File transfer is also a work-in-progress but with today’s file storage services such as DropBox and SkyDrive, you can send a “share” link via an Instant Messaging chat session. Expect to see upgrades on a frequent basis to bring this all together as a total Skype experience.

Building Skype for Windows 8 required two Product Management teams (Windows 8 at Microsoft and Skype for Windows 8 at Skype) and two development teams (Microsoft Windows and Skype) to come together and figure out how to work as a team to produce the application. Apparently development started shortly after the Microsoft acquisition announcement  in May, 2011 and includes modifications to the the back end architecture combining the Microsoft Messenger back end and Skype’s p2p architecture to provide a more robust and reliable offering.

Most importantly, Skype-to-Skype voice and video calls remain free; SkypeOut calls require Skype Credit or a Skype Calling Plan.

Bottom line: Skype for Windows 8 introduces “always reachable”, “ad hoc” access to real time Skype conversations into the overall Windows user experience. It’s there when you need to launch conversations or receive calls regardless of the user’s active applications. Yet it places a reduced demand on a device’s CPU and battery resources when not needed.

S4W8.SkypeLogos Skype for Windows 8: A New Skype ExperienceWhile users can install and run Skype for Windows 8 during their overall Windows operation, you will also need Skype for Windows Classic on the Window 8 Desktop to have access to all of Skype’s features, especially file transfer, group video calling and screen sharing. Today’s Skype for Windows 8 is a “version 1.0” and, over time, we’ll see these features embedded into Skype for Windows 8. But there is nothing here that prevents access to all of Skype’s features on a Windows 8 PC.

Skype for Windows 8 comes pre-installed with Windows 8 on the twelve most popular PC hardware platforms; it is also available via the Windows Store.

Next week I will have access to a Surface tablet and report on Skype for Windows 8 on a touch screen display. Also there will be future posts covering more details about using Skype for Windows 8.

In the meantime, today’s launch represents the first time users can experience Skype for Windows 8 outside of Skype.  If you have worked with Skype for Windows 8, put your feedback into the comments.

In closing I need to acknowledge and thank my friend, Garry, who gave me access to his Windows 8 Evaluation PC in order to check out Skype for Windows 8.

 Skype for Windows 8: A New Skype Experience

About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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