Monday, September 14, 2009

What next, Skype?

by alec on September 14, 2009

Friday, Skype killed off the Skype Extras program for developers.  The Extras program was a storefront, attached to the Skype application, that allowed developers to publish and monetize their applications via Skype’s own channel.  Announced in 2006, it was visionary for its time, but there wasn’t a lot of take-up.

Reaction around the blogosphere was swift and brutal.  Om Malik wrote that Skype was killing it’s developer ecosystem.  Andy Abramson called it a retreat from platform strategy and an indication that Skype would focus efforts on building it’s own additions to the platform.  Stuart Henshall wrote that the Skype developer program has been a shambles for years, and that developers have already moved on.  And in Wrong Way, Skype, Mike Arrington called upon Skype to provide the naked call service API that Skyper Peeter Mõtsküla  first wrote about in 2006.  And in counter-point, Jim Courtney wrote that although the Skype Extras program is dead, the API is alive and well, and companies are still building applications that leverage that API. 

What to make of it?  Well, let’s go back to the principles of developer needs.  In April 2006 I wrote a piece called Go Big, or Go Home. But Please, Spare Us The Whinging about the characteristics of good ecosystem programs. Here’s the six point checklist from that piece:

  1. Is there an Extensible platform
    1. published API’s
    2. rich, easy-to-use developer tools
    3. well written, clear and concise documentation with examples including sample code
    4. Developer resources, including support team, knowledge-base, bug reporting and support forums.
  2. Is there an Existing Customer Base ?
    1. How large and approachable is the community of users?  It has to be big enough to provide a realizable revenue opportunity for the developer!
  3. Does this Enable lots of developers ?
    1. No artificial barriers (i.e. $50,000 to join the program )
    2. Are there others? Existing Developers working on parallel, vertical or horizontal applications
  4. Are there mechanisms for monetization? For example, is there a real business in building MySpace widgets?
  5. Are there well defined Opportunities for Co-Marketing, Cross-Marketing, and Cross-Promotion?
  6. Are there any Success Stories?

So how well does Skype measure up today?  The scale is 1 to 5, where 5 is excellent.

  • Extensible Platform: 4.  There are some elements, like the naked Skype API, that are still missing, but developers are doing good things with the Skype API, despite the shortcomings.
  • Customer Base: 3.  Yes, Skype touts a number like 500 million downloads, but lets face it – most of those folks aren’t customers in the ordinary sense of the word, because most of them won’t pay for anything.
  • Enabling developers: 5. The API is free, documented, and there are no barriers to joining the program.
  • Monetization mechanism: 1. Until Skype Extra’s was killed, Skype had a good program.  Now it has none.
  • Co-Marketing opportunities: 1. Again, post Skype Extra’s, this gets a big thumbs down.
  • Success Stories: 3. There are some, but nothing like the success stories on iPhone, or Windows, or any of countless other platforms.

17 points out of a possible 30. Even so, the only real killer flaw in the Skype developer program is co-marketing.  Since Skype owns the customer, they are the only cost effective channel by which a developer reaches the customer. 

Without addressing these flaws, especially the co-marketing issue, Skype’s developer ecosystem will die.  It may take time, but developers will leave and go elsewhere.

Skype knows all of this, however.  The smart money is on Skype developing a new program, and judging by the recent spate of announcements around Skype in business, and the beefed up Skype for Business team, it certainly looks as if they’re going that way.  It’s no coincidence that that’s where the money is too.

So let’s wait and see.


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