Microsoft’s Skype Buy Could Be Good News for Apple Video Chat

Microsoft (s msft) announced today that it will acquire Skype for $8.5 billion in cash. Skype will form a new business division within Microsoft, and Skype CEO Tony Bates will become president of said division. Despite Microsoft’s position as a longtime Apple (s aapl) competitor, this deal could improve the state of video chat on Apple devices.

Microsoft, will, of course, most likely prioritize its own software and hardware when it comes to new Skype features and improvements. Redmond has already announced that it plans to bring Skype to Xbox and Kinect, Windows Phone 7 and other Windows devices, and that it will also be integrated with existing Microsoft communities like Lync, Outlook and Messenger. But Microsoft is also quick to note it will “continue to invest in and support Skype clients on non-Microsoft platforms.”

There’s plenty of reason to believe that isn’t just an empty statement. Microsoft might erode its existing Skype subscriber base by ignoring or closing down support for platforms where the service is popular, including Apple devices. And Microsoft has been good about creating and maintaining software for Apple hardware recently; Microsoft Office for Mac 2011 is a huge improvement over its predecessor, and finally brought Outlook to OS X. Microsoft also provides some interesting iOS products, like Photosynth, which it has yet to release on Windows Phone 7.

The company is clearly keen to capitalize on the opportunities provided by making its software available on competitor platforms, and much of Skype’s value lies in its ability to connect users across a wide variety of platforms. The whole reason I (and many others, I suspect) have a paid Skype account to begin with is that we know it’ll work with basically whatever hardware people I’m trying to contact happen to have. If Microsoft just wanted Skype’s tech in order to keep up with Google (s goog) and Apple’s video communications tech, it would’ve bought a much cheaper video chat startup and saved itself a few billion dollars. Since it must want the network, too, it’ll keep up development on platforms other than its own.

And since Microsoft is planning to significantly expand the reach of Skype by building it into incredibly popular devices like the Kinect and Xbox, this deal should actually benefit Apple customers who are also Skype users. That’s because it’ll expand the potential user pool considerably, and make it that much more likely that the person you’re trying to reach through Skype for voice and video chat will have access to hardware that’s equipped for the task.

I use FaceTime and iChat for video calls between Macs on occasion, but I know just as many households with Xboxes and Kinects as I do ones with Macs or FaceTime-capable iOS devices. In theory, Skype’s expanded availability should just about double my potential iPhone and Mac video calling audience.

The update cycle for Skype’s Mac and iOS clients might suffer in comparison to their Windows counterparts as a result of this deal, but Microsoft won’t drop support entirely, and the VoIP service’s reach will increase considerably. It’s one more step towards making video chat usable and useful to more people, which is a good thing for those hoping video calling catches on.