I took my parents on a virtual tour of London. It’s the second time I do it and I still can’t believe this actually works. We live in the future.
This is how I do it: using my phone, an HTC Desire, I call my parents via Skype and I enable video. This is over 3G, while walking the streets of London. I even boarded a bus and showed them how it works. It’s a lot of fun.
After showing them the Covent Garden market, I went into the second biggest Apple store and then it happened. A guard approached me and told me not to record video in the store, to what I replied that I wasn’t recording video. I told him I was Skyping. He looked at the phone and said “that’s video” to what I replied: “well, Skype can do video”. “But are you recording?” he kept asking. No, I’m not. I unplugged the headphones so he could say “Hi” to my parents. The security guard smiled and told me to go on.
First issue: he didn’t ask me whether my parents were recording or not and even I couldn’t know for sure. Now I’m wondering why is it wrong to record video but not to show a live stream to other people. I think the answer is rather simple: nobody thought of a live stream yet. The same way taking video recordings wasn’t forbidden anywhere at some point, live streaming is not forbidden yet.
I wish that instead of awkwardly holding my cellphone, I could be using a camera mounted on my head. There’s nothing new about that concept, but with products like Google Glass we might live in a world where almost everybody have an internet-connected, interactive, head-mounted camera quite soon. Are they going to ask everybody to remove their Google Glasses just in case they are recording or streaming?
What happens when something like the Google Glasses are embedded into my own glasses, the ones that correct my vision. Are they going to ask me to remove those? What happens when it is embedded directly into my eye. Are they going to ask me to remove my eyes too? Maybe they could say it’s my fault and treat me like people with full body tattoos. What if the interactive internet-connected device is the actual eyes that allow a blind person to see? Are they going to discriminate them too? Because that day is coming and the world is going to change.
This is what I would do if I were in charge of Skype, a product that could be doing much better. The big problem is, of course, adoption. Currently there are a lot of show stoppers:
You have to go to the site.
You have to download the software.
You have to install it.
You have to create an account.
You have to find and add your friend.
You have to remember to re-run it after you restart the computer.
If every obstacle halves the amount of users you are getting, Skype’s market could be 64 times bigger. That’s a lot.
I would start by writing a Flash implementation of Skype: Skype-on-the-web. Then going to skype.com/call/bob would call the Skype user bob without having to install anything or even create an account. With this feature Bob could tell his friend Sally, in an email or chatting with a competing product: “Go to skype.com/call/bob, let’s talk”. Personally, I would prefer Silverlight, but someone at Microsoft decided to halve its market by not supporting the microphone.
That’s open to abuse because anyone can call Bob at any time, anonymously. What a nightmare! That can be solved by requiring some random password, or hash. Bob would have a button on his Skype client that says “Generate call-me address” that would generate a use-once URL like skype.com/call/bob/dckx that would even work only for a short amount of time.
That last solution got a little bit too complicated. I would offer it, but I would also offer something much more intelligent. When Bob wants to talk with Sally he would go and add her to his buddy list by email address. That would automatically create an Skype account for Sally with a randomly generated password. Sally would get an email saying “Hey! You now have a Skype account! You can download Skype or just go to skype.com/on-the-web and start using it”. The most likely outcome is that Sally won’t do any of those things and will just throw that email away. That’s all right because now comes the best part.
The next time Bob calls Sally, since Sally is a non-convert yet, she’ll get an email saying: “Bob wants to talk with you! Answer him on skype.com/call/bob/dckx”. When Sally goes there, she doesn’t get a call-only-bob Skype, she gets a full featured Skype-on-the-web, automatically calling Bob. She’ll be able to call other users but what’s most important, she’ll have Bob in her buddy list. And when John does the same as Bob to call her, Sally will have Bob and John in her buddy list. Skype’s value for Sally is growing! She now has two good reasons to start using Skype
To increase the network effect hugely, I’d make it so that Bob won’t be able to see that Sally is not a Skype user. He won’t search for Sally and give up because she doesn’t have an account. He’ll just add her and it’ll seem to him that Sally is a Skype user. Because eventually she will. This model is nothing new, it’s how Paypal became the number one (only?) player in its field.
Another thing I would do is target the support market. I would allow companies, like Dell, Microsoft, Apple, etc, to open corporate accounts and get the ability to have a lot of users under the same name (like “Dell Support”, “Microsoft Office Support”, “Apple iPod Support”, etc). Skype would handle all the routing and distribution of calls to each user using the typical call-center algorithms. Currently you call a local number and Dell routes you over the internet to where the call center is: India. That routing over the Internet is most likely paid by Dell. If their customers used Skype they’d be calling India directly lowering the bandwidth bill for Dell.
For the users it’s a huge win because sometimes it’s a hassle to find the right local number to call. And if you don’t speak the language of the country you’re in, or are traveling, it’s always a problem. Serving a global market globally is the way to go. After all, Skype knows which language you want to speak most of the time.
But the real jewel of this idea is this. Skype could try to discover the type of machine it is installed on and what products are installed alongside. You download Skype for MacOSX? Here’s Apple Support on your buddy list automatically. Microsoft Office installed? Either Mac or PC, here’s Microsoft Office Support on your buddy list. Running Skype on a Dell laptop? Here’s Dell support on your buddy list. The next step is letting any developer and company register a support line with Skype and enable it at install time of the application. For example: when you install Picasa, Google is added to your buddy list and, through a Skype API, Picasa has a “Call support” button that triggers Skype if locally installed or Skype-on-the-web otherwise.
Suddenly, Skype is becoming the dial tone of the internet (instead of that Twitter thingy).