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Skype preview starts rolling out to Outlook.com users

After months of teasing (and years of Google Voice on Gmail), Skype finally starts rolling out to Outlook.com users.

The productivity convergence has begun.

Microsoft began rolling out Skype functionality to Outlook.com late Monday after promising the functionality to Outlook users nearly a year ago. A preview version of Skype for Outlook.com is currently available to a select group of users in the United Kingdom. The company plans to roll out the service to users in the U.S. and Germany in the coming weeks, with worldwide availability planned for the summer.

When Skype is available for your account, youll see a banner alert drop down from the messaging icon in the upper right corner. Youll be able to use IM with your Skype contacts right away, but video and audio calling requires a Web plug-in for Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer.

Sounds simple, right? There are a few questions. Its not clear if non-Safari using Mac owners will also be able to use Skype's Outlook.com calling functionality, or if this feature is just for Windows users. Its also not clear if Skype for Outlook.com will work with ARM-based Windows RT tablets since you have to download a plugin for the functionality to work. Browser plug-in support for the modern UI is limited, while the RT desktop is not compatible with legacy Windows applications. Weve dropped a line to Microsoft and will update this article when we hear back.

Once you have the Skype plug-in installed, youll be able to initiate video calls in two ways. Lets say youre reading an e-mail from your friend Tony. Just hover your mouse over his profile picture or the blank contact icon at the top of the message pane. Then, from the drop down menu, select the phone or video calling icon and your Skype call will start.

The second way is to click on the messaging icon on the far right side of the Outlook.com interface. Next, select the person you want to call and then click one of the calling icons in the top right corner of the messaging pane.

Skype for Outlook.com also works with the online version of Microsofts People app and automatically imports your Skype contacts so theyll be available to you from People and Outlook.com. Youll be able to use Skype integration to have a video or voice all with any of your Messenger buddies whove made the switch from Messenger to Skype. By now, most of your Messenger buddies should be on Skype, since Messenger was scheduled to sunset on April 8.

Five years behind no longer

Skype on Outlook.com finally puts Microsofts Webmail service pretty much on par with Gmail. Googles popular Webmail service has had Google Talk video calling for nearly five years, while Hotmail never offered it. In fact, Microsoft only added an in-browser Messenger client to Hotmail in 2009, a year after Gmail was already offering in-browser voice and video chat. Beyond simple video calling, Gmails Google Talk client also offers integration with Google Voice for inbox-based phone calls that are free to numbers in the U.S. and Canada. The desktop version of Skype is also capable of making phone calls for paid subscribers, but its not clear if Skype for Outlook.com will also offer this functionality.

Microsoft says the current version of Skype for Outlook.com is subject to change based on user feedback during the preview period. The software giant has been steadily rolling out Skype integration to its stable of products including Windows 8, Outlook 2013, and Windows Phone 8. The company also plans to roll out Skype integration for Xbox, which the company may detail on May 21 when Microsoft is expected to debut its next-generation Xbox console.

This is the second major Web service to get Skype integration after Facebook rolled out Skype-based video calling two years ago. Facebooks Skype quality was pretty rough at first, but has improved over time.

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