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Microsoft seen not to blame for Skype rejecting open source company

Microsoft, long the enemy of open source software, announces a pending deal to buy Skype and Skype promptly ditches a partnership with an open source company. Those two things have to be related, right?

Actually, probably not. While the future of Skype integration with non-Microsoft products remains to be seen, analysts say Microsoft has little if any influence over Skype until the acquisition is final, and has few good reasons to limit Skype's ability to work with third-party products.

"The whole value of Skype is interconnectedness, and I believe they will position Skype as an intermediate, neutral, peering meeting place," says Gartner analyst Bern Elliot.

TECH NEWS: Skype voice service crashes; users offered fix instructions

Indeed, after the $8.5 billion acquisition was announced this month, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said Skype won't be tied solely to Windows and other Microsoft products. Skype, first released in 2003, provides Internet-based voice and video calls, and instant messaging.

Despite Ballmer's assurance, the announcement this week that Skype will end a 3-year-old partnership to integrate its technology with Asterisk, an open source telephony system, naturally raised some concerns. Digium, the company behind Asterisk, said the product Skype for Asterisk will not be sold after July 26.

However, businesses can still use Skype Connect, a product that allows connectivity between corporate PBX systems and the Skype platform. Skype Connect integrates with Cisco, Avaya, Siemens, NEC and other big names.

Microsoft is not yet the owner of Skype. Regulatory clearances are still required before the acquisition can proceed, and Microsoft has said only that it hopes to close the deal by the end of 2011.

In terms of killing partnerships with makers of non-Microsoft products, "I don't think [Microsoft] could take a position like that" while the acquisition is still pending, Elliot says. Elliot suspects the Skype/Asterisk move had been in the works for some time, because the decision to end a technology partnership isn't something that happens in a knee-jerk fashion.

Even if Microsoft does have some behind-the-scenes influence on Skype's business operations today, Skype can't let Redmond dictate major decisions as long as it is still an independent company, says Forrester analyst Charles Golvin.

"Each of the companies has to at least keep the theoretical possibility open that, for some reason, the acquisition won't close," Golvin says. "They can't do anything that would disadvantage them as an independent player going forward."

While neither Golvin or Elliot say they believe Microsoft will intentionally limit Skype's ability to work on non-Microsoft platforms, there are a few things for customers to worry about.

"I don't think Microsoft will do anything to degrade that user base or discourage customers from using Skype," Golvin says. "But we may see certain new features and capabilities that come out of Skype are available more quickly on Microsoft-based platforms."

Golvin says it is conceivable that Microsoft might avoid new partnerships with companies whose products compete directly against Microsoft.

But Elliot says he thinks Microsoft is likely to expand the number of platforms Skype works on. "They would like to have as many companies interact with Skype as possible," Elliot says.

A problem might arise, though, if Microsoft competitors decide to back out of current integrations with Skype because of their rivalries with Microsoft, he says.

Companies like Cisco and Avaya make SIP trunks that are compatible with Skype, but "if the Skype-compatible trunks become something that is competitively advantageous for Microsoft, they might be a little less enthusiastic," Elliot says.

Still, Elliot says Cisco and Avaya are more likely than not to preserve Skype integration.

Microsoft, of course, will do its best to integrate Skype functionality into products like Office and Lync, its unified communications platform, which competes against Cisco and Avaya.

Although Skype has primarily been a consumer brand, Elliot says he expects "that Skype will offer a premium, business-oriented service that includes the rich presence, various federation and security services, the kinds of things that enterprises want."

Keeping Skype open to competitors would not harm Lync -- it would make it easier for Lync customers to communicate with non-Lync users, Elliot says.

Skype is expected to become a Microsoft division, led by Skype CEO Tony Bates, as opposed to being swallowed up into another product division.

In a short analysis published May 12, Gartner analysts wrote that "Skype's independent position, which Gartner expects it to maintain for at least three to four years, will allow it to continue relationships with Microsoft competitors Avaya and Cisco, as well as other mobile platform vendors." (See also: "Microsoft's top 12 rivals")

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jbrodkin

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.


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