It's been a while since a major Skype release, and on Wednesday, the eBay-owned VoIP communication service will issue the first of several planned version 4.0 beta builds for Windows that are anticipated to drop over the next few months.
The biggest changes to come with Skype 4.0 beta (download) are visual and organizational. For the first time, the program contains complete prompts for running sound and Webcam checks within the program set-up. After two failed tests buffered by common troubleshooting suggestions, Skype will recommend hardware--like headsets and a Webcam--to reverse incompatibility errors.
Skype 4.0 beta's redesigned interface may also get you blinking. Compared with its stable cousin, the new Skype beta's GUI has overflowed its banks, replacing tabs in the once-narrow interface with a second pane tacked on to the right. Four or five functions are flattened into this single window in an effort to make communications other than the voice chat staple easier to find and use. To wit, there's an IM bar deposited at the bottom of the communications pane and large buttons that prompt voice and video calls. Video calls are large by default, filling the program's communication activity pane.
Skype Out, the service offering competitive international rates for Skype users calling contacts' landlines instead of their computers, has also been chiseled out, by a large call-to-action button on the navigation bar. The button just below it opens a directory for finding people, businesses, and chat rooms. The toggle bar tucked away at the top switches from saved chat conversations to the contacts view, and rounds out the new additions.
Still more to come
Though there may be a placeholder for it, not every function in this first beta is live. The shop for Skype-approved hardware, while available from Skype.com, will not be activated in this iteration, nor will be the service on real-time advice, called Skype Prime. Automatic redial, call transferring, video presentations, and integration with Outlook contacts are also scheduled for roll-out in later builds.
The spread-out interface of Skype 4.0 beta for Windows will definitely take some getting used to, especially as it abandons the client's traditionally nimble, IM-styled build. However, it does succeed in calling out a wider array of communication services. This may give the Luxembourg-headquartered company a chance to deemphasize VoIP as its core competency and mark out new territory in Internet video, collaboration tools, and entertainment services.
As ambitious as Skype's new look and capabilities are, Mike Bartlett, the program's Windows product manager, confessed during our briefing that this design and the newly introduced features will be closely monitored for user backlash. It's likely that strong feedback from Skype's 309 million registered users will leave an impression on Skype 4.0 beta continues to take shape in the upcoming months.