Skype 4 beta: functionality, efficiency, and affect

Nov 08, 2008

I’ll quickly wrap up the series about Skype 4 beta. Previous posts have been about the (non-)disabled message edit box mystery, contact phone number editing, a confusing “email address added to profile” notice, and chat bookmarking and notification changes.

So, I’ve only covered bits and pieces of the software. And as Mike says, there are some other important features like notification and alert changes that I am not really touching at all. The above is thus a very incomplete picture.

Let me try to extrapolate a bit, though, and still try to answer a broader question: does this all matter? And how much of an improvement is Skype 4, compared to the rest of Skype and calling world?

To answer these questions, I’m going to use a simple framework that is a synthesis of different things I was taught in Master’s school and my own personal observations. The framework says that you can evaluate a given product across three dimensions: functionality, efficiency, and affect.

Functionality

On the surface level, Skype 4 introduces no major new functions. Most things (calling, video, chatting, texting, file transfers etc etc) were already there. Skype 4 improves them in important ways, but there’s no new groundbreaking new functions. Some functions like history management are missing from the betas, but Skype said they will be back. And some non-performing functions like Skypecasts have got killed irrespective of the Skype beta, which is good. Killing underperforming functions (in the user sense, not necessarily monetary sense) lets Skype focus on what matters more.

One important meta-function in Skype 4 is “conversations”. This is actually a really big deal and more significant than it appears. It is a differentiator from the rest of the world, as Skype takes all these different functions that you can do with a person or group (calls, chats, file transfers, text messages) and aggregates them into a stream that you can flexibly manage (mark unread pointers and such). It is a different view to communications from what we’re used to.

For example, let’s compare Skype conversations to e-mail. E-mail is “bucket-centric”. All of your e-mail arrives in one big inbox “bucket” from where you must manage the messages. Ditto for SMS on most phones. There is one “bucket” for text messages from everyone. In Skype, there is no single bucket. Communications are always associated with the person right away. I like it that way much more.

I don’t know if the Skype 4 conversations are the best possible way to implement it, but it’s already way ahead of everyone else (but I take away points for not having universal search). For example, on iPhone, I can text, call and email people, but the three functions are completely separate. And the fourth important communication method, iChat, is missing altogether.

So function-wise: everything old is there, many things are improved, and “Conversations” is a bold new take that can get a lot beyond where it is currently.

Efficiency

Functionality was about what you can do with the product. Efficiency is, well, how efficiently those things work. I.e how quickly you can get to things.

I think that efficiency in Skype is a mixed bag. For many things it has improved in Skype 4, especially for text chats. On the other hand, there are many lost opportunities for efficiency. A very common scenario when making SkypeOut voice calls is to interact with the remote system using a keypad to “talk” with the “woman robot” that is giving you voice prompts at the other end. Look at all the space that the default call tab has, and try to find the “open keypad” function. I’ve underlined it in red for you. (Thank you, the contributor of this observation.)

So, opening the keypad when doing SkypeOut calls is pretty inefficient and could be improved. It was also pretty small in the previous versions, but look at all the empty/wasted space. If I am not calling a mobile, it is very unlikely that I would want to send an SMS to them, as opposed to using the keypad.

One part of efficiency is also resource use. I’m running Skype in a virtual machine and I notice that v4 is definitely using more system resources than v3. I have not done scientific measurements, but subjectively, it starts slower and runs slower. But running in a virtual machine is not a common scenario for daily use and computers have evolved in recent years, so I’m not sure how much of a problem this is. In developing countries where computers may not be exactly brand new, we may hear more about this in connection with Skype 4.

Affect

Affect is the third dimension of looking at a product. A less scientific name is “likability”. The above two were about objective, scientific criteria. You can count up the functions that a piece of software has, and count the lines of code it takes to implement them. You can look at efficiency in terms of time it takes per task and use something like Keystroke-Level Modeling to measure it for simple tasks. But affect and likability are much harder to measure, and much harder to justify spending resources on, as opposed to, say, pure coding.

Skype has been a tremendous success in affect previously. With a shoestring budget, they built a brand that is among the most recognized around the globe. And the software has been applauded for ease-of-use. A large part of the affect is that Skype was a simple tool that connected people who had no affordable way to reconnect before.

Skype 4 carries forward the same promises about connections, but I don’t think it delivers anything new in terms of affect. There are some little things, like being able to use bigger profile pictures, which may have an impact. But just looking at it for a few minutes, I didn’t go “wow, this is the best thing ever and a huge improvement over the old stuff”.

Affect is very subjective, and if Windows were my main platform and I took more time to look into the new version and play with all its benefits, I might be more enthusiastic about it. But the Mac version does everything that I need and I’m much more inclined to just keep using the Mac version than try to do things with v4 on Windows on a daily basis.

Wrapping it up

There have been claims that Skype 4 breaks the user experience. I don’t think that’s the case. You can still get everything done, and nothing has become worse. Some things have stayed the same, many have become better. But there is no big leap in terms of affect yet, and conversations feature needs to become bigger and bolder to deliver all its promises.

For me, Skype has evolved a lot beyond the computer, and thus individual software versions become less and less relevant. My questions revolve around questions like when will I get a decent wireless headset? And how much money do I save monthly with Skype to Go as opposed to at&t? (Very important and a huge opportunity for telco vendors in current economy – if Skype delivered a decent UI for such calculations, it would kick ass) And when can I make Skype video calls from my HD TV? (Some Skype veterans are trying to figure the latter out.) None of this has to do with particular software versions, and especially not Windows ones. (Mac is up to 18% by US computer retail unit sales. Anyone remember the latest major Mac version update?)