Skype for Mac 5 – From Ecstasy to Agony

For Mac devotees worldwide there has developed a significant appreciation of Skype for Mac 2.8 with it’s drawers, separate chat conversations windows, contact management algorithms and other features that present a “Mac-like” user interface. It provided both ease-of-use and flexibility across the spectrum of new to advanced users. However, there have also been cries for incorporating many features that are now available in Skype for Windows 5.x, especially Group Video calling. A tall task, to say the least. Recall Dan York’s rant on Skype’s fragmented product strategy, for instance.

Over the past couple of months Skype has released two versions of Skype for Mac 5.x (5.0 and 5.1) to some acclaim (yes, I have heard some complements) but also to much dismay. On the positive side it supports Group Video Calling (but now requiring a subscription). It took a couple of weeks after the Skype for Mac 5.1 release but last week the Internet erupted with an outbreak of Skype for Mac 5.x fever as several bloggers passionately displayed the rash by posting their concerns, apprehensions and aspirations. From my recent interviews with Skype personnel, their blogs and my own experience using both Skype for Windows 5.x and Skype for Mac 5.x I find the following:

  • It appears that the goal for Skype for Mac 5.x is to have an interface similar to the revamped user interface first launched as Skype for Windows 4.x and now at its most recent version, Skype for Windows 5.2. At the same time the goal was to catch up to the feature set of Skype for Windows 5.x.
  • From my CES interview with Neil Stevens, Skype’s VP Consumer Products, I learned that Neil wants to see new versions with incremental feature enhancements released every two to three months. Certainly the activity since the beginning of 2011 has lived up to that goal with two new releases of both Skype for Windows and Skype for Mac in that time frame.
  • In the announcing the contest for “Styling” a theme the Skype for Mac 5.x conversation pane there is a concluding paragraph stating:
    • Finally, a note to those of you who have commented on the user interface as a whole. We’re in the process of developing some changes which will offer a lot more flexibility in the interface, and they’re on the roadmap for a (near) future version. Stay tuned.
  • In response to last week’s deluge of blog posts Skype’s Rick Osterloh has posted “An Update on Skype for Mac” where he attempts to explain some of the challenges of building Skype for Mac 5. He states:
    • However, there’s still plenty of work for us to do and we know that not all of you prefer 5.X. To that end, we’ve taken a comprehensive look at the feedback from the last couple of months and identified two broad patterns. I’ve captured a distillation of some of the issues we have heard.
  • In the meantime Skype has restored the ready availability of Skype for Mac 2.8 on their website as an option.

Skype for Mac 5 Fever – The Outbreak

  • Lukas Mathis, Ignore the Code, in his post Skype 5 for Mac, finds an upgraded Skype Contact asking: “What the hell happened to Skype? Is this some kind of a joke?” He goes on to point out the simplicity in Skype for Mac 2.8 of the basic contact window, how chats were displayed and how he uses the Mac multi-desktop feature to manage multiple concurrent chat sessions. He continues by outlining his issues with Skype for Mac 5: complexity, rigidness and non-essential features. All valid points including a demonstration of how a more advanced user took advantage of the UI’s flexibility in 2.8.
  • Jaanus Kase, a former Skype employee who has since acquired a degree in Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, in his post, Skype 5 for Mac: spatial arrangement and inconsistent single-window design, discusses the the “Floating and Disappearing Dial Pad” as an example. [My comment: here is one feature that needs to be addressed by looking at how the dial pad is handled in Skype for Windows 5 (I’ll have more to say later on this one.)]
  • proj-skype-4Hudson Barton, a Skype for Mac enthusiast who tracks Skype users online every 15 minutes, uncovers a previous Skype for Mac UI design proposal from an agency that Skype worked with (don’t know if they still do). He points out in his post, How To Fix Skype-for-Mac 5.x :
    • ….. the features of Skype-for-Windows work consistently and as one might anticipate, with lists of contacts,  conversations calls on the left and the content of those items on the right.  The Mac interface, by contrast, is all mixed up. {Editor’s bold} Things pop up in unexpected locations and in formats that are both strange and unusable.  Some of the features are too buggy to use.  Others are annoying, or meaningless, or simply dead, and several things that were admired in 2.8 have gone missing.

    and offers some suggestions for fixing Skype for Mac 5.

  • Phil Wolff at Skype Journal, in Months pass, and fury over Skype 5 for Mac still boils, provides one perspective on “How did this happen” and points out that “Design Is Hard”:
    • How do you hold fast to your core Skypiness, to what made people love you, and support new features for new markets, new use cases, new business models? Your backlogs overflow. The pressure is intense. Heck, I add to my Skype wishlist daily so I can only imagine what your iceboxes look like.
  • Andy Abramson at VoIP Watch speculates on how this all may have evolved in Skype Has Another Set of Outages Yesterday.

Skype for Mac 5 – The Anti-Biotic

From these posts and conversations in the general course of my work I get the feeling that I am one of the few users who has experienced both Skype for Windows 5 and Skype for Mac 5 on an almost daily basis. I am also involved with a network of business contacts who simply use Skype — they don’t care about the underlying technology –  and just want it to work but again I hear that “What the hell happened to Skype?” line from those who use a Mac.

Just over a year ago I acquired a MacBook Pro and quickly learned first hand about the features that made Skype for Mac 2.8 attractive to its user base. And then I realized that some of the basic precepts behind Skype for Windows 4 and 5 had some consistency with how Skype for Mac 2.8 worked, especially when it came to handling contacts and conversations. At that point I realized how some of these features were inherent to Skype for Windows 4.x and have become very comfortable with the Skype for Windows 4 and 5 overall format while benefiting from its new features:

  • The two panes clearly separate Contact Management and Conversations
  • There is a “Compact View” option to have a separate window for Contact management and multiple windows for individual conversations (with chat text, call detail notes and file transfer records) in addition to the “Default View” with one overall user interface window and two panes. (Note: don’t go running to Compact View in Skype for Mac 5 – that has totally different consequences)
  • Skype for Windows 5.x has evolved with new UI features that make using Skype even easier (for example I have commented on two nifty new Skype for Window 5.2 here and here – the latter addresses one aspect of how the dial pad works).

Over the course of this week I will be putting up a series of additional posts outlining in more detail what I see as needed for Skype for Mac to come close to the convenience, feature set and ease-of-use found in Skype for Windows 5.2.

Bottom line: the Skype for Mac team has lots of work outstanding to address the challenge of not only having the feature set but also ease-of-use of Skype for Windows 5 while also taking advantage of some potential features that are unique to the Mac. Hopefully my comments can help point out key issues. With over 30 million online concurrently last week and 145+ million active users late last year, there is a significant portion of Skype’s users who count on a positive user experience (18% of this blog’s visitors in 2011 are on a Mac.)

Dan York has some additional comments:

Other posts in this series:

  • Skype for Mac 5: Returning to Ecstasy – Step 1 – Consistency
  • Skype for Mac 5: Returning to Ecstasy – Step 2 – The Conversation Pane

Other views on this issue:

And, for those design masters: enter the Mac chat style competition; competition announcement

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      About Jim Courtney

      Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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        […] calls as well as archive and search conversation history. Yet, with the release of Skype for Mac 5, there has been a “Skype for Mac 5” fever outbreak on the Internet due to its lack of consistency with these features. Bottom line is that users are […]

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