Sunday, November 11, 2012

Microsoft to ditch Messenger

Microsoft is to ditch its instant message service and focus its efforts instead on Skype which it purchased in 2011 for a reported $8.5 billion. Microsoft Messenger will be retired next year, and all contacts will be integrated into Skype.

How the change might affect its email service, now called Outlook [ZDNet], which has Messenger built in is not made entirely clear. Nonetheless Microsoft are singing praises about its new offering in a blog posted via its Skype arm of its business. Once updated to the latest version of Skype, Messenger users can expect "Broader device support for all platforms, including iPad and Android tablets" the post says.

Instant messaging, video calling, and calling landlines and mobiles will all be available in one place and facilitate options such as "screen sharing", video calling from mobile phones, video calling with Facebook friends and even group video calling.


Microsoft Messenger has lost ground to other instant message services over the last few years. Google's Gmail users have long abandoned Microsoft's offering in favour of Google's message client Gtalk, sometimes referred to as Google Chat. With video chat integration with Google+, Microsoft Messenger falls somewhat short.

Facebook also offers instant messaging, though as with all these services it is necessary to create an account. Furthermore it is also necessary that one's friends and contacts also have an account with the same messaging service.

In fact it is often required to have multiple accounts as some friends or contacts either refuse or cannot be bothered to join another social network, email client or install Skype.

While some contacts may be on Skype, there are others who are only on Facebook. Google+ may have attracted some to its fold, but there are still a great many, even amongst Gmail users, who have yet to take the plunge.

Geographical restrictions

There are also geographical considerations. Both Facebook and Google+ are blocked in China, and even Gmail and Gtalk suffer from occasional disruption. While message client QQ is popular within China, it is virtually unheard of outside the country's borders. As such one of the few methods though which one can communicate with people in China is to use Microsoft Messenger.

Skype does work in China, however the version available for download within China itself contains spyware which enables government snooping. Skype, which provides a way for Internet users around the world to communicate directly by voice, video and text chat, has a Chinese-language version developed and marketed in China by the Chinese company TOM Online. Prior to Microsoft's purchase, Skype executives publicly acknowledged that the TOM-Skype software censors sensitive words in text chats, and have justified this as in keeping with local "best practices" and Chinese law.

However Skype does not inform Chinese users of the specific details of its censorship policies, and does not inform them that their software contains censorship capabilities, nor of the potential of such data being passed to authorities [BBC / Telegraph / NYT / Breaching Trust - PDF].

There have been no reported changes to the version of Skype that is available in China, even since Microsoft bought up the company and despite the fact that Microsoft was one of three signatories in 2008 to a global code of conduct promising to offer better protection for online free speech and against official intrusion [BBC].

Chinese considerations

Interestingly, when Windows Live Messenger is retired  in the first quarter of 2013 in mainland China it will remain. According to reports Messenger won't be retired in China due to certain licencing restrictions.

Chinese news site Sina Tech reported Wednesday last week that while Microsoft owns Messenger and Skype, the two services are offered via joint ventures with local Chinese companies. Thus any plans to merge the two offerings and retire Messenger from China might complicate the structure of both companies, the report said.

In 2004, Skype launched a modified version of its software in China to comply with local regulations with help from TOM Online. A year later, the two companies entered a joint venture with TOM Online holding the majority 51% stake.

However, in July this year, ZDNet reported that TOM Online might lose its local operating rights for Skype as the Chinese company failed to renew its contract with the US VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol) service provider.

As for Messenger, the instant messaging service is offered by Shanghai MSN Network Communications Technology Company, otherwise known locally as MSN China. MSN China is a joint venture between Microsoft and Shanghai Alliance Investment and was formed in May 2005.

If Microsoft does decide to merge Messenger with Skype, it will have to make adjustments to the structure of both Chinese companies, Sina Tech reported.

A separate report by Chinese tech news site on Wednesday it cited Liu Zhenyu, the general manager of MSN China, as saying there will be no layoffs at the company as the Skype-Messenger merger does not affect China.

What plans Microsoft has for solving issues relating to this is unclear. While contacts in Skype will remain unaffected, it is not clear whether current Messenger contacts in China would still be able to be contacted through Microsoft's new Skype interface that will be rolled out elsewhere [ZDNet].

Rebuilding a brand

Microsoft's decision to focus on Skype is probably a sound move. While there have been signs of its search engine Bing and its recently renamed email service Outlook gaining in popularity, their usage remain small compared to the likes of Google's offerings.

While both companies offer email services on a par with each other Gmail remains in the lead with nearly 500 million users while Microsoft lags at a little over 350 million [email marketing reports].

As regards the use of its search engine Bing has apparently taken off in recent weeks pulling in 5% of search enquiries, though Google by far remains the search engine of choice for nearly 90% of the world's population [BBC].

Windows based mobile phones are also floundering. More than three quarters of all phones are using Google's Android operating system while Windows Mobile accounts for less than 2%. According to the IDC around 75% of all phones are using Android while the remaining 25% of the market is made up by iOS at 14.9%, BlackBerry at 4.3%, Symbian trailing at 2.3%, while Windows Phone is almost last in the race taking only 2%. Linux is last however with only a 1.5% market share.

And while Microsoft is putting a great deal of faith in its new Windows 8 operating system for PCs it has failed to gain rave reviews and may even be more vulnerable to malware [The Inquirer].

There are are certain issues that come with the redesign since many older pieces of software may not work with the new operating system [BBC]. While Windows still has its place, especially for PC users, Microsoft may find itself becoming a niche product for those doing specialist tasks in the office environment. With cloud computing fast becoming de rigeur for many users, Microsoft will have to reinvent the way it does things in the future if is is to survive.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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