An Open Letter to Apple After Microsoft’s Purchase of Skype

Dear Apple,

There is big news in the tech sector these days and, one way or another, you are part of all of it. Not a surprise considering the amazing growth you have maintained and the way in which you are shaping the next era of computing.

It looks pretty likely that the Nuance deal that has you in a strategic partnership with the voice recognition company is a done deal. Good move! As we wrote last June, Google was eating your bacon in the voice recognition arena and you needed to do something… And fast. Okay, so it took you a year and a full point jump in your version of iOS but it is happening. That is all that matters. After all, even though universal voice-to-text access on Android handsets hasn’t been a huge hit with the mainstream Android user it HAS begun to take hold. Moreover, for people like Thomas and me it makes a HUGE difference. Your walled garden approach has allowed Nuance’s Dragon Dictation to be quite useful and super-accurate within the app itself but, within a fairly short period of time, it hit a usability wall. You can only go so long having to copy and paste the text you dictated into the app for which it is destined before it becomes a frustration. If you build Nuance’s voice rec into the OS however (as WE TOLD YOU TO!) voice to text will likely take off. Your elegant mobile OS partnered with Nuance’s magical voice-to-text technology (yes, I used the word magical) will be fantastic. It is about time!

Isn’t it interesting how Google, Microsoft and Apple are competing in the same arena in this regard. Google has their voice-to-text technology. Microsift has been hard at work at theirs. And now you will leave them in the dust by opting to join with the company with the best and most mature v-to-t technology. Good move.

But the (as still unverified but looking pretty likely) news about Nuance is only one of the big moves we are seeing this week.

The other has to do with Microsoft’s purchase of Skype. Once again this is a three way competition between Google, Microsoft and you. Microsoft (over)paid 8.5 billion for the company if the initial reports are accurate. That is a pretty hefty sum. Balmer is no Bill Gates but he is far short of an idiot so if he was willing to pay that kind of coin there must be a pretty good reason. There is. Google has Google Talk and Google Voice and they are hard at work trying to leverage the technology on both computers and mobile devices. It makes sense and I often find myself using Google Talk to place calls when at my desktop these days. Microsoft needed to get into the voice and video chat business and they needed to do it in a big way. In the same manner that you needed voice-to-text technology if you wanted to continue to compete but realize you were better off getting it from from a mature and proven source rather than going it your own, Microsoft knew they needed to get into this arena and to do so quickly. Sure they could have developed their own but Google is so far ahead already that it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to do it quickly enough. Through the purchase of Skype Microsoft gets the technology and the infrastructure and hits the ground running. Sure Skype has had its issues lately but it exists, it works (most of the time) and it is a great platform from which to build.

Which leads us to you Apple. You are already in the game as well. Your Facetime technology is pretty darn awesome. So long as both people are on a Mac or iOS device with a video camera and have high speed Internet the calls are pretty great. In fact, even though the video quality can be hit or miss at times the voice quality of the “calls” is amazing. At least in my case it truly leaves Skype and Google Talk in the dust. But it doesn’t go far enough and you need to change that: NOW!

Here are a few relatively simple suggestions for how you can build on FaceTime and directly compete with the likes of Google Talk/Voice and Micro-Skype.

1. Make it super simple to place a voice-only call over Facetime.

I don’t always want to see the person I am talking to. Sure there is a way to turn off the camera or at least block it but that really isn’t an elegant solution. (And you are all about elegant solutions aren’t you?) There needs to be an option BEFORE you place a call and DURING it to go “voice only”. Do that and Facetime becomes a whole lot more useful to me.

2. Facetime needs to work over 3G

Do what you have to with the damn carriers but find a way to let end-users place a Facetime call over 3G. Make if voice-only at first if you have to but do SOMETHING. Listen up Apple, so long as Facetime is WiFi only it has limited appeal. You NEED it to work everywhere there is connectivity and you need to do it now.

3. Get Facetime on every possible platform.

People want more platform neutrality. You need to stop worrying so much about people being Apple-only and let Facetime work on other platforms. Listen Apple, you have THE most elegant solutions for computing AND mobile devices. People love you stuff. Heck, just look at the ads for other tablets. They all take you on. Look at the reviews or even the announcements for that matter. They all talk about an “iPad-killer” or “iPad -competitor”. So long as that is the way new tablets are being positioned you HAVE ALREADY WON!!! Let me use Facetime on the BlackBerry Playbook. (By the way Apple, their cameras are amazing and make yours on the iPad 2 and the touch look like a joke. What’s with that?) Let me use Facetime from an Android handset. In other words, let me use it with someone who is not a devoted Mac or iOS user. Until you do Facetime will be cute… But not important. You need it to be important.

So let me sum up. You, Google and Microsoft are all playing in the same fields. (Just like you, Google and Amazon are directly competing in the online music storage realm.) You needed good voice-to-text technology and it looks like you got it. With Nuance in your pocket you will go from last place to head of the class. You’ve now been in the voice chat game for almost a year. Facetime is elegant and works beautifully but it is a bit crippled. Microsoft just pulled an Apple-Nuance move. With Skype in their pocket the potentially go from last place to first. And even if they don’t go into first place they are suddenly a player again. That is a shot across the bow. That is a call for you to ramp things up with Facetime. That is a good reason for you to make some minor tweaks to Facetime that will easily make it the voice chat system, and video chat mode of choice. But the clock is ticking so you had better do it now.

Oh, and Apple, I only resorted to writing this letter because I couldn’t call you over Facetime. You see, I’m currently in a 3G area without WiFi… And that’s the point.


Dan “The Lemming” Cohen

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About the Author

Dan Cohen
Having a father who was heavily involved in early laser and fiber-optical research, Dan grew up surrounded by technology and gadgets. Dan’s father brought home one of the very first video games when he was young and Dan remembers seeing a “pre-release” touchtone phone. (When he asked his father what the “#” and “*” buttons were his dad said, “Some day, far in the future, we’ll have some use for them.”) Technology seemed to be in Dan’s blood but at some point he took a different path and ended up in the clergy. His passion for technology and gadgets never left him. Dan is married to Raina Goldberg who is also an avid user of Apple products. They live in New Jersey with their golden doodle Nava.