Is Skype the Windows Phone Wildcard?

That Windows Phone lacks a Skype app is, like Apple's fixation on the word "Magical" and the rampant popularity of Justin Bieber, one of life's great conundra. Microsoft is desperately seeking "must have" apps to showcase its smartphone platform, and yet it already owns a VoIP company putting out what could legitimately be described as just that on iOS and Android. Delivering Skype for Windows Phone would certainly answer one great criticism of the OS, and cross a further reason off the wait-and-see list for many buyers. Still, it's the promised deeper integration of Skype into future iterations of Windows Phone, however, that could signal the turning point for the "third platform."

Details on just how embedded Skype will eventually be are in short supply, bar the fact that it's in the works. Skype CEO Tony Bates confirmed the consolidation this past week, suggesting that it would follow on from a more typical standalone app as is available on other platforms. It's no great surprise, though; back when Microsoft finalized its acquisition of Skype, it was keen to stress its vision of the "ubiquity of the Skype experience" with "communication across every device and every platform."

Not all platforms are created equal, and when you have the keys to the toolbox you can do far more than tinker. Microsoft's ambitions for Skype undoubtedly extend to differentiating Windows Phone with a service that has already accrued no small amount of traction. Adding VoIP as another option for voice calls is an obvious one, as is presence indication in a harmonized contacts list. Skype IM support could easily be built into Messenger, and Windows Phones bearing front-facing cameras – and crying out for a cross-platform video call app – are slowly growing in number.

There's finessing your platform, however, and there's ratcheting up the challenge until it's not just an iPhone-threat but a real game-changer. VoIP has always been the service carriers have feared, a way of bypassing their cost structures around local, national and international calls, and instead shifting to a world where distance is all but irrelevant and an hour's talk is or a matter of cents or even free.

For it to work, though, it needs a tipping point in users. Try to figure which of your friends are on Qik, which on Fring, which on any of the other would-be VoIP challengers, and it soon seems a whole lot less trouble to just make a regular phone call. Skype, though, already has the userbase; now it just needs a concerted effort to build it into a platform that makes saving money with VoIP transparent.

As a user, I don't want to have to figure the relative costs of traditional cell calls versus VoIP; I just want to hit dial. If I tell my Windows Phone that I want to make the cheapest voice calls possible, I need it to automatically figure out which times to use Skype – and whether over WiFi or packet-data – and which time to dip into whatever bundle of voice minutes I might have left. All or nothing doesn't help me – is a free VoIP call that over a paid data connection better value than a cellular voice call, or worse? – what I need is a handset that can figure that out for me.

If Microsoft could fathom that, instill Windows Phone with the sense to not only suckle at the dumb pipe but to do so with an eye on moderation not gluttony, it would offer a genuinely different option in the smartphone market. More than that, it would open the door to a true alternative to the carriers of today. Ex-Googler and current Mozilla Labs design chief Kevin Fox suggested just that last year, pointing to Microsoft's acquisition of Skype and – at the time fledgling – work with Nokia, and pondering whether the big software company had a big soft carrier plan in the pipeline:

"If over half of a soft carrier's airtime minutes were carried over Wi-Fi rather than a leased cellular network, that carrier could beat a traditional mobile carrier on price even if the traditional carrier doubled their costs when they leased access to the soft carrier, and for every customer who only has 3G access there's another who has almost exclusively Wi-Fi access, and over time the scales continue to tip toward the latter, steadily lowering soft-carrier costs. Rates could either be flat regardless of transport, averaging out the benefit to all customers, or discounts could be given to those who use Wi-Fi more often."

Microsoft would do well to examine the mistakes and pitfalls of those which have gone before it, though; it isn't the first big name in tech to consider challenging the carriers. Google's original Nexus concept was a smartphone – Android-based, naturally – free of operator subsidy and the implicit ties a subsidy creates. Instead, the networks would be relegated to pipes, simple conduits for VoIP and the like, with users picking the phone of their dreams and then throwing service into the cart almost as an afterthought.

In actual fact, the Nexus project was – when viewed as a challenge to the domineering carriers – an abject failure. Soon Google's "phone comes first" scheme was nothing more than a SIM-free Nexus One on sale with a hefty $500+ price tag online, while most went either to AT&T or T-Mobile USA to pay a more palatable $200. Google redressed the Nexus idea as a hardware showcase, focusing on herding its Android OEM partners in whichever direction Andy Rubin & Co. decided was best.

Could Microsoft, and Skype, and Nokia, do things differently? Skype certainly has the brand recognition Google Voice lacks, and both Nokia and Microsoft are certainly desperate enough to consider as wholesale a shake-up of the mobile market as possible to give them each room to flourish. Google arguably never really needed to do away with carriers, its interest was always getting Android – and mobile advertising – into the hands of as many customers as possible. If that means a dozen slightly different phones from a half-dozen vendors on each of the main carriers, then so be it.

[aquote]Microsoft and Nokia lack that flexibility[/aquote]

Microsoft and Nokia lack that flexibility. The pair have already been struggling to gain mindshare in the all-important retail environment, reportedly digging deep into a $200m purse or thereabouts to fund the AT&T Lumia 900 release. A fair chunk of that cash will grease the palms of retail staff, encouraging them to push the new Windows Phone rather than its Android or iOS counterparts. At some point, though, launching each new handset on a bed of hundred dollar bills becomes counterproductive.

What Microsoft needs is a big WiFi backbone and an eager, perhaps mildly desperate carrier to deliver fall-back. T-Mobile USA would seem an obvious choice, left floundering in the aftermath of the AT&T deal collapse. Instead of coaxing carrier showfloor time for each and every launch, Microsoft could push Windows Phones and its companion soft carrier network in its own retail locations, as well as on Xbox LIVE and through Windows computers. That direct marketing would be talking to arguably the most likely users, too: those for whom Windows Phone's PC and Xbox integration might strike a chord.

It'd take guts, and investment, and a fair amount of madness to do, but the alternative is watching Apple and Google eat up every last scrap in the mobile ecosystem. Skype alone can't save Windows Phone, but it could certainly prove the key that unlocks Microsoft's mobile future.