Skype 5.0, the latest version of the ubiquitous application supporting voice and video calls over the Internet, is an ambitious release, with a couple of major new features which may represent Skype’s best chance to get further into the mainstream. That was my take after a "first look," immediately following its release on Thursday.
You’re probably thinking: Skype's already mainstream. Doesn’t everyone, including Oprah, already use it?
It may seem that way, until you actually start using it. In my experience, and in my discussions with many people in the technology community, there are still a very large number of people who don’t use Skype--or Internet calling at all.
But Skype 5.0 has a chance to change that, and to a large degree that rests on the application’s biggest new feature, namely its deep integration with Facebook.
Skype 5.0 now includes a Facebook tab, which can display the status feed from your Facebook profile. More importantly, from within that status feed you can not only view your friends’ status updates, you can contact them directly using Skype.
To set this up, I simply clicked the Facebook tab in Skype, entered my Facebook account information and then was able to view status updates from within Skype (though on one computer it took several tries before this worked).
When viewing your friends' status updates from within Skype, three buttons can appear next to the updates. If your friends have entered phone numbers within their profiles, a call button lets you call them while viewing their status update. An SMS button can also be displayed for texting friends and if your friend has a Skype account, a plus icon lets you add them to your Skype contacts.
For the most part this worked well but I found several limitations. The Facebook tab within Skype only displays the status feed, so if you need any other Facebook information, you’ll need to jump to your browser.
The biggest problem is the assumption that someone would live in Skype and just want Facebook information available while they are in Skype. Really, the situation is the opposite. This integration should let users work within the browser and see these call icons from their full-browser based Facebook interface, not within the Skype interface only.
There are some third-party Facebook applications that allow some of this within the browser functionality but this type of feature should be a part of Skype 5.0.
Along with the newsfeed, users can also view a Facebook phonebook from within Skype, which displays a list of all of their friends who can be called through phone, SMS or Skype. This was a nice feature for quickly contacting a friend without having to dig elsewhere for call information.
The other big new feature in Skype 5.0 was group video calling. With this feature it is now possible to include up to ten participants in a group video call. I wasn’t able to test it up to this level but I did have several three person video chats that worked well overall.
This is a potentially useful feature for effective and free conference calls and virtual meetings and while it wasn’t the quality of a high-end telepresence conference, it was fine for most discussions.
Overall, Skype 5.0 has cleaned up the interface and I found it to be easy to use and uncluttered. Clearly, the biggest play is the Facebook integration. If this can lead Skype users to convince their friends to sign up and use Skype to talk while on Facebook, it could be a huge boost to Skype’s user base.
To check out the new Skype 5.0, go here.