Why Does This Happen?

Skype used to be the premier VOIP app (long before we called such things apps). It always had a crummy user interface but call quality was excellent and users put up with the rough edges. However, since Microsoft bought Skype call quality has declined, seemingly steadily. There are frequent software updates that don’t improve the user experience and sometimes introduce new problems. With its Skype updates on Windows MSFT forces you to opt out a la Java from having your browser configuration hijacked. Calls get dropped more than they used to. Calls that don’t go through are much more frequent. Bandwidth now seems to affect call quality even though it was once possible to use Skype easily over dialup Internet connections.

This morning I tried to make a Skype call on my mobile and found there had been another upgrade, forcing me to waste minutes selecting a new background color and dismissing what’s-new pages and trying to find my contacts list, which is all I ever want to do. I don’t want to invite my contacts to use Skype, I don’t care about inserting GIFs into chats, I don’t care about the Skype community. I care about good, consistent call quality, about having my list of phone numbers propagate automatically to laptop or phone when I update the list, about having a Skype number for incoming calls, and about easy management of occasional conferences and international calls. I used to care about video calling but I gave up since good alternatives appeared. If Skype could restore its past high call quality I could happily put up with the other hassles. If Skype could also improve its UI in a few obvious ways I would be thrilled. It never happens. Why not?

A company with a great product conspicuously fails to improve that product and it starts to lag competing products. Or a big company buys a small company and ruins its main product. MSFT’s management is no doubt part of the problem here but the pattern is familiar. Why is it familiar? You might think the smart people running MSFT would know better. Perhaps they don’t, perhaps this is a more difficult problem than it appears to be. Or perhaps something else is going on.


20 thoughts on “Why Does This Happen?”

  1. And the ads. Skype’s UI had been absolutely ruined in the past year by ads everywhere on the screen. It’s awful.

    I haven’t upgraded my iTunes in years, since there were some feature changes I hated, but Apple has been happy to let me use the ancient version. Microsoft has gotten very aggressive with Windows 10 and other product in not letting you refuse upgrades.

    The question is why they have been able to be so loathed by their customers for 30+ years and still not threatened in the market. It would be like if K-Mart was the dominant retailer in the country.

  2. Not a Skype user, but this sounds like multiple product managers each lobbying to add their own features to Skype and no one willing to say “NO, it may be a good thing but we can’t impose too many Good Things on people every time they want to make a call.”

  3. A small company finds a niche market and exploits it wonderfully, to the benefit of its customers.

    Then somewhere, a bureaucracy notices, throws layers of regulatory and/or process “value added” around it to “improve” it, and the niche product suffocates.

    It’s the Circle of Life(TM).

  4. Actually, contrary to the Orson Scott Card rant, the senior executives of large software companies are *not* generally clueless administrators who know nothing about the technology. At Microsoft, for example:

    CEO Satya Nadella got an electrical engineering degree and a masters in computer science before getting an MBA. He was a member of the technology staff at Sun Microsystems before joining MS.

    EVP Worldwide Commercial Judson Althoff holds a mechanical engineering degree.

    Chief Marketing Officer and EVP Consumer Chris Capossela has computer science and economics degrees and got his start in computing as a boy, writing a reservation system for his family’s Italian restaurant.


  5. A small company finds a niche market and exploits it wonderfully, to the benefit of its customers.

    Then somewhere, a bureaucracy notices,

    This reminds me of the book, “Jawbreaker” about Afghanistan after the invasion and for about a year after.

    Special Forces guys were working with Afghans and getting stuff done. In the meantime, the SF guys were riding horses and wearing Afghan gear.

    Then the “Big Army” arrived and said “shave and get into uniform” and it all went downhill from there.

    The little guys who know what to do accomplish great things,

    Then the bureaucrats arrive.

    David Brinkley’s book, “Washington Goes to War” describes what happens when a bureaucracy is given a large budget.

  6. Some other examples but I’m pretty computer illiterate: TI computers were better than IBMs when we were changing from typing to word processing at On the Double; software was going to be a problem so we ordered IBMs. WordPerfect was wonderful but not supported as much and not widely used it faded out. Angel delivered online classes but Blackboard’s solution was to buy it out and stop support. Someone on here might know if these three were because: a) the larger company (IBM in 2 cases) knew how to manage the marketplace better or just saw competition in raw advantages; b) what seemed advantages for a very small business and a small school weren’t for larger ones; or c) if they just didn’t persevere & keep up their products.

  7. They forget the core purpose for the product. I have a similar problem with the iPhone Facebook app. A year ago it seemed simple. I could edit my past comments. Now the stupid thing gives me all these dancing gifs that I really don’t want (to insert into comments) and I haven’t been able to edit my comments for some time. I have more features that seem more a nuisance to me and not a feature. And the basic things don’t seem to work.

    Plus as an added feature it has bloated to about twice the size.

  8. I read Orson Scott and as an old programmer, I think it is more complex that that. Skype, I’m sure, was developed by a small company with a core group of hard core programmers. The goal was simple, and everyone knew what had to be reached.

    Along comes Microsoft with huge management, committee meetings and such with far loftier goals. And in trying to make those goals the core strengths – the reason people liked Skype, suffered. If Microsoft had just worked on making a nicer interface they would have had a winner.

  9. It’s leadership and passion for the product. One genius with a vision will make anything they touch a magnificent creation. Give it to people with “qualifications” and an eye on their career path and you sentence it to death.

  10. I used to use Microsoft’s screen sharing on what used to be Windows Live. It was free and worked in the browser. Sort of a quick and dirty low-end alternative to Go To Meeting. They spun that off into a separate application called Lync, and Lync is now Skype for Business. They bundle it with Office 365, added all the fancy social analytics and the AI algorithms, and Skype is now being re-branded as an enterprise solution on what they call the “intelligent cloud”.

    This is what Microsoft always did well. The IT equivalent of plumbing or the gas company.

    An end user app like Skype, where the proverbial rubber hits the road, that the consumer interacts with hasn’t always quite jibed with their core bailiwick. In the past Microsoft tried to workaround their innovation problem by copying others.

    Clippy, Zune, Bing, Surface. I’m sure there are more that I can’t think of. Skype looks like it’s following the same pattern because Microsoft is apparently trying to turn it into Snapchat.

  11. I already pay for MS Office, and I pay Skype $50-100/year for subscriptions and calling credits. How many new customers who come for animated GIFs and cat videos does MSFT need to attract to replace the revenue they will lose by driving off one paying Skype customer?

  12. Niche software companies often get bought because the acquirer wants the technology, not the product. Maintaining the product and service then becomes a sinkhole rather than a revenue producer. So the product managers look for ways to monetize it that add no value to the pre-existing user base. Eventually it often just gets discontinued.

  13. On my mobile phone’s Skype app I can no longer find a contacts list. I have to type names into a search box or scroll through my list of completed calls. But on the plus side there’s a nifty new logo.

  14. MSFT has never given a rat’s ass about the end-user, except in the partial sense of pretending to care about commercial/institutional customers with more than 1000 licenses… or maybe more than 10,000 licenses…

    They made their initial impact by buying out someone else’s product (DOS), getting the inside track when IBM was looking for a commercially available OS for its planned PC, and then with a combination of illegal licensing requirements and careful attention to developers (rather than end-users), so their platform would have more available applications. They have no track record of producing good application software in-house, and anything they buy and bring in then suffers the consequences.

    Now they are orienting toward “the cloud” which is completely about business customers.

    This is now so deeply embedded in their corporate DNA it is hard to see it changing in the lifetime of any current user. Gates, Ballmer, Nadella, it doesn’t matter. They are what they are.

  15. I have more features that seem more a nuisance to me and not a feature. And the basic things don’t seem to work.

    I have been trying turn off some features in my Mac OS. One is the “search” feature for a click on the touch pad. If I want to click on an item, I get unwanted things like “search for the word meaning.” I don’t want the word meaning. I want the site or app the word represents.

  16. I use Face time on my ipad. Gave ipads to both sets of parents when we moved to Portland. Even they can use them in a pretty bulletproof way. Plus works with all the iPhones.

    I have a long term hate / hate deal with MSFT. Lately I have been teaching myself google sheets so I can cut the last cord with Excel.

  17. That is an interesting observation about Face Time. It used to be that Skype video was the best alternative if not everyone in your family used iOS. Now there’s also Duo, which isn’t as user friendly as Face Time but is easier to use than Skype video. It may never happen but if Google made Voice more reliable, bundled it with Duo and made it easy for users to import Skype contacts they might get many Skype users to switch.

    I noticed that the new Skype on my mobile makes speakerphone the default option for voice calls. Lovely.

  18. Skype is not a thing I care about, but I understand your pain. M$ will screw up almost anything good. The Android app is supposed to be usable.

    I buy older phones outright and rip the OS out and replace it. That gives me control, well to some extent. I bought an HTC from 2013, because it has some of the nicest speakers ever put on a phone and the 4Mp camera is a killer video camera. It works very well and because it’s mine I got to jump on a Canada Wide account with 4G a month data, from Virgin Mobile, for $45. Pretty cheap for Canadian prices anyway.

    I enjoy fooling with the hardware and I understand not everyone does, but I have yet to brick a phone.

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