Skype in the Workspace comes out of beta, still lacks key features

9 Nov 2012

This week, Microsoft-owned Skype excitedly announced public availability of its new service targeting SMEs and entrepreneurs following six months of beta testing – but with key features lacking, Skype in the Workplace just doesn’t seem like a complete product.

Skype in the Workspace (SITW) is a free-to-use online platform for small businesses, start-ups and entrepreneurs. Users sign up to the site and can create or explore ‘opportunities’, which is SITW language for an offer of a Q&A or quick discussion – via Skype video calling or other arranged method – on a selected topic.

These opportunities can have a time limit of a five, 10, 15 or 20-minute chat and the point is that it opens up a world of potential customers, partners and suppliers around the world who may never have had the chance to speak to one another otherwise.

Not-so-instant connections

But while SITW has potential, it’s hard to ignore the gaps in the service.

Released in beta phase in May, the service has since attracted 500 businesses and entrepreneurs offering over 140 services. The platform is there for these people to either pose a question to the community or offer to share their experience and knowledge with others.

To take up an opportunity to chat, users click Connect – but connecting isn’t that simple. Clicking the button does not immediately call up Skype video calling, but instead sends an email to the user you want to connect with so that your online meeting can be arranged when you are both available.

While this makes sense considering that users won’t be available to chat online 24/7, the fact that there’s no way to even tell if a user is online when you want to connect with them is a startling oversight from the creators of a successful communications system. In fact, the Skype caller doesn’t even form part of SITW – all the system does is email someone telling them you are interested in connecting with them via Skype.

Less-than-social networking

Not only does the service lack immediacy, it also falls short on creating a community atmosphere. While users can create opportunities to be seen by all, the discussion that follows will be from one account to the other, with no opportunity for other voices to join in. There’s no way to comment on opportunities or – more importantly – to rate them, so there’s no telling if the so-called expert seeking to connect with you is really worth their salt.

As far as creating a platform for shared knowledge goes, SITW does not allow for collaboration broader than a one-to-one basis.

Search and curation

For users seeking to discuss something specific, there is an option to search – but there are no divisions by sector or category to work from so, if you’re just browsing, finding what’s relevant to your business could be difficult.

SITW creates collections of opportunities under headings like ‘Innovation and Strategy’ and ‘Designing for People’ but, again, without community ratings, users can only take Skype’s word that they have gathered the best of the bunch under these categories.

According to Ural Cebeci’s blog post introducing the service, users should be able to provide testimonials on their online meet-ups, but I myself could find no evidence of such feedback from entries I explored on the site. Whether that’s because they don’t exist, no one has availed of the opportunity, or they have done so on such a minimal scale that they are difficult to find, I can’t tell.

Maybe these testimonials are for Skype’s eyes only to help to curate the content, both for the collections and to target the right users. Cebeci claims that SITW will surface opportunities in front of the right members for your business, but with profiles containing few details and no targeting opportunities when creating opportunities, I’m at a loss as to how it can do this.

A sort-of useful directory

Some registered users seem to have taken to using the service as it is intended for consumers – as a directory – and plenty of opportunities are nothing more than a brief company profile with no real indication of intention to discuss a specified topic, just an option to connect. In this respect, the service is useful, but the lack of immediacy in connecting could be off-putting.

Connecting businesses to businesses and businesses to consumers via Skype is a great idea but, as a whole, SITW seems empty and not yet fully thought out.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.