NOTE: This was originally posted on my personal blog on October 15th of 2012.
Our subject today is the apparent devolution of the user interface of the popular voice-over-IP program and protocol of Skype. We will go over the quick and dirty history of the look and feel of the program, including what we have lost as innovation has pushed evolution of superior applications out of the scope of development.
This, my friends, is Skype 4: the version that brought Skype to its greatest height in design and functionality.
Skype 4 had a plethora of new features. This included, finally, a unification of the group calls and group chats. Previously, it did not always have a dedicated chat to a specific group call. It also introduced the one window interface that made it simpler to use along with a plethora of UI changes that just tied the whole thing together. With real UI controls, obvious buttons, and context menus, everything was arranged well.
Skype 4 was the Skype version that allowed anyone who makes group calls to make it an everyday occurrence. It also made the concept of “perma-calls” a regular thing. With it, you were focused on contacts and groups without any extra fluff. The design had a good color scheme and presented all the information you needed when you needed it.
In the group call setting, the call creator was clearly denoted with a specific icon. When viewing active calls, those who are participating was clearly noted even when you weren’t in the call itself. Most importantly, it was possible to recall or hang up on someone with great ease if you were the call creator. There was one thing Skype 4 was a eligibly crummy at: the desktop-oriented interface wasn’t very suitable for the touch oriented tablets. However, many appreciated its fast, efficient, and compact UI and for the time was not all that interested in those type of devices. (Here is a hint, not to this day is, namely me).
I know of a few people who still use Skype 4 today because the next version wasn’t really much of an improvement UI-wise, but Skype 5 was tolerable after some adapting.
Skype 5 brought group video calling (for a price and only 10 people at a time and even then for a limited period of time as stated in the AUP) and a host of updated and other simply annoying features and UI changes.
You will notice how the controls are somewhat larger but still retain a fairly classy gradient effect that really shows what you can click and what you cannot. This newer version didn’t exactly work well when it first shipped. It also had a host of incompatibilities with mixed Skype 4/Skype 5 calls, including: complete permissions and group call corruption (Everyone would be master and no one could manage the group effectively), application crashes if one or the other joined a mixed call depending on what version of the client the call host was running, and several other oddities.
Over time, these incompatibilities were resolved and those who remained on the older version and those who took the risk of running Skype 5 were able to attain compatibility in group calls without issue (save for video calls since Skype 4 did not have group video).
A number of UI annoyances were introduced. The whole UI changed depending on what you were doing with the program. When you are not in a call or group call the UI simply looked much like a slightly updated Skype 4 interface. But when you start or join a call, the entire interface changes.
Note that we will talk about the flatness of Skype 6 when we get to it. However, the in-call state is virtually identical in Skype 5. When you start the aforementioned call the entire UI goes blue and presents everyone as very large icons. You are still able to see who is in the call, but anyone who does not answer or hangs up after a few seconds disappears.
We are left with a question, especially in the beginning of Skype 5’s life. How do we call someone back? Well you use the plus button on that bottom bar, of course. Well, of course! The bar that sometimes hides itself along with the contact list and sometimes doesn’t? This, my friends, is a real pain to use, though it looks very nice. A popup menu of people in the group but not in the call pops up and you select everyone you want to recall.
On one hand, this behavior helps so you can redial multiple people. However, finding, popping, selecting, then hitting a button to confirm is a real pain when you want to just call one person back.
Another change is when you are out of a call and the call is active, you have no idea who is actually in the call until you join it. On top of that, you are now unable to modify many in-call settings without either a context menu or a popup window/menu. Would you guess to modify your speaker volume, you click what appears to be a signal indicator and go through tabs on a popup? Or simpler still: instead of a microphone volume slider on the bar now it is a popup as well and can be changed from insane tabs popup menu from the cell phone signal icon.
Yeah, I didn’t think it would be that obvious. Speaking of hiding stuff that we may want or need visible at a glance, the wonderful chat functionality that many use for linking URLs is hidden by default and you have to click yet another button to see it. Sometimes this stays up when a call starts and sometimes not as well. Well, at least it is an icon that looks like it could be for chatting.
Speaking of UI of Skype 5, instead of a nice window where you can change things like profile information and your status from the sidebar, now it is all part of the Skype home functionality. Which brings a much needed (uhh huh) webification to a program that is not a web browser. Likewise, adding a contact in Skype 5 is also not as straightforward and takes longer because it has a loading spinner for its webby appearance as well. Everyone likes Web 2.0 in their desktop programs right? Of course they do!
Now as the last screenshot is of Skype 6 and not of Skype 5, let us talk about the changes in Skype 6. Such as the horridly flat Windows 8-esque style even on other versions of Windows where we were not looking at what appears to be something drawn on a sheet of paper from a tablet (Oh yes, we will get there too!).
Skype 6 (Desktop) is not that different from Skype 5, which fits in perfectly with the current opinion from Microsoft about the desktop. As I mentioned before, Skype 6 takes the Windows 8 desktop UI quirks and brings them to any version of Windows, whether you want it or not. It dispenses with the nice gradient effect and puts more of that horrid pale blue and drab white on to your screen.
Many of you know Skype has been owned by Microsoft for some time. Thus it must fit into the new scheme of things as much it can with as little effort as possible. One of the major changes with Skype 6 is its ability to link your Skype account with your
MSN Account .NET Passport Windows Live Account Microsoft Account. This comes as a convenience, as there is now a bridge in place and Skype can loosely communicate with whatever they are calling MSN Messenger these days. Well, not quite. In Skype, they somewhat exist in parallel (except for the linking), which may or may not take over your Skype account on its own. The details are not clear to exactly what all this entails. Luckily, this is optional on the desktop. You do not have to have Microsoft’s IM service or account linked (at least not yet). That is, unless you use the metro/modern UI version of Skype on Windows 8.
For this post, I wanted to show you the new Metro or Modern UI or whatever-it-is-being-called version of Skype for Microsoft’s longest shot yet: Windows 8. However, when I went to sign in to it, I was presented with this screen. Apparently, you cannot use this version of Skype (or rather this UI of Skype) without linking the accounts. I decided not to do this for the time being and used another Microsoft Account and tried to sign in. I found my self not with having to register a new skype account but this bastardization based on my Microsoft Account. Now, this is great, you may think, and it is if you do not have a Skype account already.
However, this means a few things:
Let us take this little hypothetical into consideration. You want to sign on Skype using your friend’s new Windows 8 computer. You are not really reading the screens as they pass you by. You have now just linked your Skype account with your friend’s Microsoft Account. Since very little about this process is known or has been explored, as of yet we do not even know if it is even possible to unlink them. This hypothetical is similar to issues people had when Google and YouTube required linking. But since this is about the UI let us get back to that point.
Isn’t that just sweet? No, really, is it?! This account has only one contact. My real Skype account. How in the world do you even deal with this? I mean, the flaws are apparent and the UI is what you expect from a Metro style “app”. It seems to me they took this powerful program that hundreds of thousands have figured out how to use and made it so simple that it is down right cryptic. The sidebar to the left is one of those right click deals… Or was it corner hotspot..? Anyway, now we have two status states: Online or invisible. No busy, no Do not Disturb (a staple status that silences the Skype sounds when you are in active group “perma-calls” and don’t, well, want to be disturbed. Good to know they kept the very large ads I didn’t mention about in Skype 5 (Skype 4 had occasional small ads in the corner of the contact list that you could dismiss and were not that bothersome).
Well it does function but group calls are even worse than the issues I described for Skype 5.
Welcome to a group call, I think… Yes it has to be a group call since it shows many people… On one icon with some text in the top corner. Well, I guess those avatars aren’t important enough to show. Neither is a clear indication of who is in the call. You would think with Microsoft’s obsession with tiles we would have a big ol’ tile view of who is in such a group call… Nope!
I must note that I only used the Metro version of Skype for a very brief time (quite literally long enough to get a few screenshots for this seemingly never-ending post) and have not fully explored its features. I can say this much: as a long-time Skype user and knowing many long-time Skype users, we are are not entirely impressed with this.
Well, we knew this was coming. We knew this was the end result. We can only hope it gets a bit better. But I can’t exactly tell you how or if it will.
Seems we are in a downward spiral twords this simplification and Just Works™ state of things. I only hope they see the light and avert this dark future of technology.