Microsoft promises not to ditch Mac, iPhone, Android Skype users

'I said it and I meant it,' says CEO Steve Ballmer when asked for assurances (see video below)

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Skype CEO Tony Bates
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Skype CEO Tony Bates greet each other Tuesday on stage at their joint news conference in San Francisco, where they announced a definitive agreement under which Microsoft will acquire Skype for $8.5 billion from the investor group led by Silver Lake. (Reuters/Susana Bates)

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer today promised that the company would continue to develop and support Skype on rival platforms.

"We will continue to invest in Skype on non-Microsoft client platforms," said Ballmer during a news conference announcing the company's plan to buy chat and Internet phone software maker Skype for $8.5 billion.

Skype currently offers versions of its software for Apple's Mac OS X and Linux on the desktop, and on Google's Android, Apple's iOS, RIM's BlackBerry and Nokia's Symbian mobile operating systems.

Ballmer was adamant that the new Microsoft Skype division would not ditch the owners of iPhones, Android smartphones, Macs and other technologies.

"A, I said it and I meant it," Ballmer said when a reporter asked for assurances that Skype would continue to be available for operating systems and devices not sold by Microsoft. "B, we're one of the few companies with a track record of doing this," he added, citing Microsoft's work on Mac OS X, for which it develops and sells a Mac-specific version of its Office suite.

Aapo Markkanen, a senior analyst at ABI Research, took Ballmer at his word.

"Yes, I think they will continue to support Skype on other platforms. If they don't, it will cut the size of the addressable market," said Markkanen.

And that's crucial, since in Markkanen's eyes, the 170 million Skype users are the main reason why Microsoft's pricey purchase -- its biggest-ever acquisition -- makes sense.

"It's the customer base first, then the brand," said Markkanen.

Ballmer and Skype CEO Tony Bates, who will report directly to Ballmer after the conclusion of the acquisition, did not spell out detailed plans for Skype going forward. Rather, they said only that Microsoft will add Skype support to the Xbox and Kinect gaming systems and Windows Phone, and integrate Skype and its users with Microsoft's Outlook email client and its Lync and Xbox Live services.

Neither addressed how Microsoft would, or even if it would, change Skype on hardware powered by operating systems other than Windows or Windows Phone.

But Markkanen saw an opportunity for Microsoft to make good on its promise to support Skype on rival platforms while still emphasizing its own software.

"I can see them doing a basic version for other platforms, with instant messaging and a calling feature on all handsets, but limit video and conferencing to Windows and Windows Phone," Markkanen said.

Although it might be a long shot, Microsoft could also use this tiered approach to convince some users to switch platforms. "It might be a nice teaser to users of other platforms, and a way to market Windows phone," Markkanen said.

Microsoft hopes to wrap up the deal, including any necessary regulatory clearances, by the end of this year.

After rumors of a deal with Google or Facebook, it's Microsoft that has scooped up Skype.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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