Microsoft Corp. has bought Skype for $8.5 billion, in an all cash deal. It is the biggest acquisition in the 36-year history of Microsoft, a company that traditionally has shied away from large deals.

Microsoft might would want Skype for a number of reasons. Video collaboration has become a leading growth area in the enterprise communications space, and Microsoft gains a huge brand, albeit consumer centric, that offers a much-used video calling and collaboration tool, with global usage and awareness.

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Then there is Windows Phone 7, Microsoft’s hugely-important smart phone operating system. Skype might prove especially useful as a counter to Apple’s Facetime or Google Voice as a video calling and collaboration app.

Microsoft also might be able to use Skype to bolster its enterprise video collaboration features as well.

Then there is the matter of a globally-recognized Internet brand and application, plus a registered user base of perhaps 663 milliion people.

Years ago, people used to debate whether Google, Microsoft, Apple or others “would become telephone companies.” These days, the answer is pretty clear. None of those firms want to be “telephone companies.” But all provide messaging, video communications and peer-to-peer voice. Google and Microsoft now offer international calling to standard phones and mobiles as well.

All three firms are major players in smart phones. Some would say these three are going to be the leaders of the smart phone OS market. Perhaps the more relevant question these days is not whether app providers want to be communication service providers–they already are–but what that means.

What does it mean to be a communication service provider these days? It certainly does not mean being “a telco” or “cable company” or “mobile service provider,” in the sense of being an “access provider.”

Access providers nearly always, and large access providers must provide applications as well as access. But though the business builds on access, access is the foundation for apps. The only issue is which entities provide which apps.

For Microsoft, the answer is that it must provide communication features of different types, for its operating systems, productivity apps, consumer Internet apps and devices.

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