If you were wondering why Microsoft purchased Skype for $US8.5 billion, the reason might be Office 365.
First, a little history. The new features of the last couple of versions of Microsoft Office were largely about collaboration. Small businesses couldn't take full advantage of those features unless they also ran Microsoft's server applications, which were often outside their budget or involved more complexity than they were prepared to accept.
Now they can use Office 365 for as little as $7.90 per user per month. Used mainly in conjunction with the existing Office applications, it provides Exchange Online (25GB mailbox, calendars, etc), SharePoint Online (document and information sharing plus web publishing), Lync Online (presence, instant messaging, PC to PC calling, desktop sharing), and the Office Web Apps for viewing and editing documents on computers and devices without Office itself.
Since hosting providers have been charging $15-$20 per user per month for hosted Exchange with mailbox sizes around 1GB, that's a pretty attractive deal.
So, what's all that got to do with Skype? Look at the overlap between Skype and Lync Online - the main thing Skype offers that Lync Online doesn't is inbound and outbound phone calls.
Combining Skype with Office 365 would make the offer even more attractive to small businesses who wanted the convenience of click-to-call and other telephony-related features but couldn't justify running Lync in-house.
"We're excited about what Skype can bring [to Office 365]," Oscar Trimboli, director of Microsoft Australia's information worker group, told me. It would also add to the reasons why Telstra wanted to be Microsoft's Office 365 sales partner to small and medium businesses - if it can't stop those organisations and individuals migrating to non-Telstra VoIP services, at least it'll be able to 'clip the ticket' by selling Skype subscriptions for calls to and from fixed and mobile phones if that becomes part of a future Office 365 subscription plan.
With Skype already offering rates such as unlimited calling to fixed lines in Australia for around $6.75 per month (Telstra currently charges $30 per month unlimited calls to either local or STD or mobile numbers) and calls to mobiles for as little as 8.7c per minute, you can see the attraction. That said, Telstra offers unlimited calls to mobiles for $30 per month, whereas Skype wants more than half as much again for a bucket of 400 minutes.
If you’ve got something against Skype, Telstra is working on the integration of Office 365 with its own telephony services. Rod Bruem, corporate affairs manager at Telstra Business said nothing had been announced yet, but it may be offered as part of the telco’s forthcoming Digital Business packages. Other VoIP operators are also looking at the possibilities. MyNetFone is already certified for Lync interoperability, but technical director Rene Sugo said there doesn’t seem to be any provision for back-end integration with Lync Online, although it may be possible to provide client side software to deliver some functions.
Either way, it does look as if the promise of close integration between computers and phones is finally coming within reach of small businesses on tight budgets.