Microsoft is turning Skype into a messaging platform—and, as usual, it’s late to the game

Bots are the future.
Bots are the future.
Image: REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach
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Like Tencent did with Wechat, Facebook with Messenger, and Slack with Slack, Microsoft is turning its chat app, Skype, into a full-blown messaging platform.

To transform Skype, Microsoft has to make it smarter, and the company’s plan for doing so rests on the shoulders of bots, and their creators. At its Build developer conference today (March 30), Microsoft introduced the Skype Bot Program—a set of tools, including an SDK, API, and workflows—that, as its name suggests, lets developers build bots for Skype.

Some examples of what these Skype bots will be able to do include ordering a cab, booking a hotel room, and “anything that you may want to do that you’ve done historically with applications and websites,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because the whole concept of smarter AI helping humans get things done was a major theme of last year’s Google I/O developer conference. Then, the search giant touted how Google Now—a layer within Android phones that surfaced relevant information, such as commuting times or boarding passes, at just the right moment—was learning more context in order to perform more robust actions, like pulling up showtimes when a movie is referenced or making reservations on OpenTable when talking about a restaurant.

The notion of taking action via chat apps also took center stage at Facebook’s F8 conference last year. After splitting off Messenger from the flagship app in 2014, the social network revealed its grand plans to open Messenger up into a platform. The new Messenger made it possible for users to send money to their friends, buy items from stores, interact with customer service reps, and more.

For Microsoft, opening up Skype represents the most significant shift in the chat app’s 13-year history. And it comes amid an ongoing messaging revolution that has companies trying to make their apps more useful, convenient, and hopefully addictive for consumers. But Microsoft has a track record of embracing trends a tad too late, perpetually putting it in a second- (or lower-) place position.

Take, for example, smartphones. Responding to the iPhone, Microsoft in 2010 debuted its Windows mobile operating system to much fanfare, but it never made a serious dent in market share. As of February 2016, the operating system was active in 2.6% of smartphones globally, according to NetMarketShare.

It’s a similar story with search. In response to Google’s dominance in that area, Microsoft in 2009 launched Bing. Almost seven years later, Bing, which also powers much of Yahoo search results, commanded 21.4% of desktop searches in February compared with Google’s 64%, according to comScore.

Microsoft was also slow to embrace cross-platform computing, only bringing Microsoft Office to the iPad in 2014. But in that instance, a late entry hadn’t hurt the company too much, thanks to the ubiquity of that product. In fact, Apple recently started selling Office 365 as an add-on during the checkout process for the iPad Pro, relying on desk workers’ familiarity with Office to position its tablet as a PC replacement.

Over the years, Skype has become synonymous with video calling, but that’s had the effect of pigeonholing the chat app. Unlike Office, Microsoft can’t rely solely on Skype’s reputation to compete against up-and-comers. Though it counts more than 300 million monthly active users, it’s by no means the dominant chat app. Facebook Messenger has 800 million monthly active users. WhatsApp, another Facebook subsidiary, has 900 million, and WeChat’s not far behind either. Snapchat, which is gunning to be millennials’ go-to chat app, counts 100 million daily active users.

As is the objective of these conferences, Nadella urged developers to build bots that work with Microsoft programs, presenting it as a “huge opportunity for you to write new types of applications.” But unlike Windows 10, which Microsoft projects to run on 1 billion devices in the next two years, there was no mention of Skype’s growing reach. For developers with limited resources, it simply wasn’t a strong argument for why they should create bots for Skype rather than, say, Messenger.