Welcome to the Post-Email Enterprise: what Skype Teams means in a Slack-Leaning World

Work technology vendors very commonly — for decades — have suggested that their shiny brand-new tools will deliver us from the tyranny of email. Today, we hear it from all sorts of tool vendors:

  • work management tools, like Asana, Wrike, and Trello, built on the bones of task manager with a layer of social communications grafted on top
  • work media tools, like Yammer, Jive, and the as-yet-unreleased Facebook for Work, build on social networking model, to move communications out of email, they say
  • and most prominently, the newest wave of upstarts, the work chat cadre have arrived, led by Atlassian’s Hipchat, but most prominently by the mega-unicorn Slack, a company which has such a strong gravitational field that it seems to have sucked the entire work technology ecosystem into the black hole around its disarmingly simple model of chat rooms and flexible integration.

Has the millennium finally come? Will this newest paradigm for workgroup communications unseat email, the apparently undisruptable but deeply unlovable technology at the foundation of much enterprise and consumer communication?
Well, a new announcement hit my radar screen today, and I think that we may be at a turning point. In the words of Winston Churchill, in November 1942 after the Second Battle of El Alamein, when it seemed clear that the WWII allies would push Germany from North Africa,

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

And what is this news that suggests to me we may be on the downslope in the century-long reign of email?
Microsoft is apparently working on a response to Slack, six months after the widely reported termination of discussions of acquisition. There has been a great deal of speculation about Microsoft’s efforts in this area, especially considering the now-almost-forgotten acquisition of Yammer (see Why Yammer Deal Makes Sense, and it did make sense in 2012). However, after that acquisition, Microsoft — and especially Bill Gates, apparently — believed they would be better off building Slackish capabilities into an existing Microsoft brand. But, since Yammer is an unloved product inside of the company, now, the plan was to build these capabilities into something that the company has doubled down on. So now we see Slack Teams, coming soon.
Microsoft may be criticized for maybe attempting to squish too much into the Skype wrapper with Skype Teams, but we’ll have to see how it all works together. It is clear that integrated video conferencing is a key element of where work chat is headed, so Microsoft would have had to come up with that anyway. And Skype certainly has the rest of what is needed for an enterprise work chat platform, and hundreds of millions of email users currently on Exchange and Office 365.
The rest of the details will have to wait for actual hands on inspection (so far, I have had only a few confidential discussions with Microsofties), but an orderly plan for migration away from email-centric work technologies to a work chat-centric model coming from Microsoft means it’s now mainstream, not a bunch of bi-coastal technoids. This will be rolled out everywhere.
So, we are moving into a new territory, a time where work chat tools will become the super dominant workgroup communications platform of the next few decades. This means that the barriers to widespread adoption will have to be resolved, most notably, work chat interoperability.
Most folks don’t know the history of email well enough to recall that at one time email products did not interconnect: my company email could not send an email to your company email. However, the rise of the internet and creation of international email protocols led to a rapid transition, so that we could stop using Compuserve and AOL to communicate outside the company.
It was that interoperability that led to email’s dominance in work communications, and similarly, it will take interoperability of work chat to displace it.
In this way, in the not-too-distant future, my company could be using Slack while yours might be using Skype Teams. I could invite you and your team to coordinate work in a chat channel I’ve set up, and you would be able to interact with me and mine.
If the world of work technology is to avoid a collapse into a all-encompassing monopoly with Slack at the center of it, we have to imagine interoperability will emerge relatively quickly. Today’s crude integrations — where Zapier or IFTTT copy new posts in Hipchat to a corresponding channel in Slack — will quickly be replaced by protocols that all competitive solutions will offer. And Skype is that irritant that will motivate all these giants to make a small peace around interoperability, in order to be able to play nice with Slack.
We’ll have to see the specifics of Skype Teams, and where Facebook at Work is headed. Likewise, all internet giants — including Apple, Google, and Amazon — seem to be quietly consolidating their market advantages in file sync-and-share, cloud computing, social networks, and mobile devices. Will we see a Twitter for Work, for example, after a Google acquisition? Surely Google Inbox and Google+ aren’t the last work technologies that Alphabet intends for us? How might Slack fit into Amazon’s designs? That might surprise a lot of people.
But no matter the specifics, we are certainly on the downslopes of the supremacy of email. We may have to wait an additional 50 years for its last gasping breath, but we’re now clearly in the chat (and work chat) era of human communications, and there’s no turning back.

Orange’s Libon app lets you take calls to your number over Wi-Fi

Libon, the WhatsApp and Skype competitor from French carrier group Orange, has an interesting new feature called Reach Me, which will allow people to send and receive calls over Wi-Fi using their mobile phone number, regardless of who their actual carrier is.

The Libon app has been around for more than two years now — Orange won’t say how many users it has amassed during that time, but the carrier group uses it to offer special calling deals through its local operators, and Libon chief Dominic Lobo told me that people are using it in over 100 countries.

The Reach Me feature is being pitched as a way to get around poor indoor mobile coverage. “If someone calls you, the call is picked up by your Libon service – all you need is Wi-Fi coverage in your home or wherever you are and you’ll never miss a call,” Lobo told me.

I reckon that also makes it an interesting proposition for those traveling overseas and looking to avoid roaming voice fees, though they would of course need to have a Wi-Fi connection, and Libon will have to have been enabled in the country where they are.

Orange will show off the Reach Me feature at Mobile World Congress next week, and will roll it out commercially during the first half of this year. Italy will be first, somewhere around the end of March. According to Lobo, Italy has a lot of Android phones (the feature will be available on that platform first) and enough existing Libon users to provide Orange with good data on the initial rollout.

In addition, Orange doesn’t have a carrier in Italy, making it a good showcase for the so-called “over-the-top” (i.e. provided over the internet like Skype et al) nature of the app. “We want to demonstrate that we can launch it in a market unrelated to ours,” Lobo said.

Kim Dotcom puts MegaChat secure Skype rival into beta

Kim Dotcom’s Mega has launched a public beta of its MegaChat end-to-end encrypted audio and video chat service, which it claims will offer a more secure alternative to Skype.

The in-browser service forms part of the wider Mega web app (now on a new .nz domain), which also offers encrypted file storage and sharing. The technical details are currently hard to come by – I can only guess that it’s WebRTC-based, as it doesn’t require a plugin.

According to scoundrelpreneur/wannabe-politician Dotcom, vanilla audio and video chat is just the start:

Mega has previously had poor ratings from security experts for its cloud storage encryption, but the New Zealand–based operation is offering a security bounty for anyone who finds flaws in its new services. That’s not the same as opening up the code for audit, of course – one reason to be somewhat skeptical about Dotcom’s claims.

Skype is certainly not a good choice for the security-minded: it’s not peer-to-peer anymore, and the Snowden documents suggested that the NSA has had access to Skype communications since 2011. [company]Microsoft[/company] has denied giving intelligence agencies “blanket access” to its services.

Security aside, in-browser video calls are set to become ubiquitous with the proliferation of WebRTC-based tools (Skype itself is heading in this direction, though its browser-based beta currently requires a plugin). Mozilla’s Firefox browser now even comes with a built-in Skype rival called Firefox Hello, which allows for Skype-style accounts and ad-hoc anonymous chats, too.

Skype dragged into LuxLeaks tax scandal

Skype used Luxembourgish and Irish subsidiaries to avoid paying corporation tax for five years, according to a Guardian report.

The newspaper, which analyzed confidential documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, reported late Tuesday that Skype was one of the many companies that had used Luxembourg’s extremely light-touch tax regime to get out of paying significant amounts of tax.

Legally speaking, the issue here isn’t so much the actions of the companies themselves – there’s no suggestion that they broke the law as such — but the establishment of sweetheart deals by relatively small European nations that meant more tax revenues for themselves, but the demolition of tax revenues in other European countries.

The European Commission is finally cracking down on such behavior by claiming such deals amount to illegal state aid, and is also now trying to sew up the loopholes. Awkwardly, however, the Commission is now led by Jean-Claude Juncker, who was in charge of Luxembourg’s government for many years and was proudly boasted about the environment he had helped set up.

The Guardian report quoted Juncker as both insisting that the “Luxembourg model” did not exist, and saying: “Skype will remain based here … this is partly because of the favourable fiscal environment we’ve created here in Luxembourg.”

Tuesday’s revelations mark the second tranche of companies to be identified in the “LuxLeaks” scandal, with others including Disney and Koch Industries. The first caused tremendous embarrassment to Juncker and, according to reports on Wednesday, the European Commission may now force the companies involved to publish their tax agreements.

Amazon is already embroiled in an EU investigation into similar arrangements. Here’s how it worked in the case of Skype. The Luxembourgish Skype Communications company would take in SkypeOut revenues, then pay large intellectual property royalties to another Luxembourgish company, Skype Technologies, which owns an Irish company called Skype Limited.

As the Guardian described it:

Because Skype Technologies owns 100% of Skype Limited, it asks the Luxembourg tax man to treat that as though it had in fact paid licence fees and then received that money back as a dividend from Skype Limited. This imagined structure wins Skype Technologies a 95% tax break on its licence income from Skype Communications.

This 2005 deal covered a period when Skype was owned by [company]eBay[/company]. It’s not clear whether the arrangement is still in force, but [company]Microsoft[/company], Skype’s current owner, said in a statement:

Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype was finalized in October 2011, so we can only speak to activities after that date. Post-acquisition, we reviewed and modified Skype’s business model as part of the integration process. As a global business, Microsoft adheres carefully to the laws and regulations of every country in which we operate.

Firefox’s built-in Skype rival begins to evolve

Firefox Hello, the WebRTC-based video-calling feature that Mozilla and partner Telefónica revealed as a beta feature in October, hit the mainstream — sort of — with the full release of Firefox 34 earlier this week.

It’s still very much under development though, being currently tucked away under the “customize” section in the browser’s settings menu. And, as of Thursday, those who download the beta of Firefox 35 can test out a few improvements.

The big changes are in the account-less call mode, which is moving towards a [company]Google[/company] Hangouts-style room model. When you initiate a call – something that’s done by sending a link to the person you want to talk to – Firefox Hello will now show you your own camera feed before your partner joins the call. The call begins as soon as the person you’ve called joins the conversation, whereas before they would have had to initiate a callback which you would have had to answer.

Users will also now be able to create and name multiple conversations for people they regularly want to talk to, again without needing to create an account or sign in. Not only is this URL-based approach anonymous (theoretically at least), but it also makes it easy to set up chats with users of other WebRTC-toting browsers, such as Chrome and Opera.

Those who do set up Firefox Hello accounts can of course make more traditional direct calls, which don’t involve passing on URLs as a setup mechanism.

Mozilla and Telefónica are very much looking for feedback on all this, so if you try it out, be sure to give them your opinion on the changes they’re making.