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Competition for Toolbox?

Two years after Microsoft acquired Skype it has blocked the use of some third-party software. Philip Stevens talks to VidiGo, the Dutch company that developed a software application that enables Skype to be used for broadcast, about its future and if it will still be able to offer the solution.

Broadcasters have long accepted the fact that Skype provides a very effective video communication tool where ‘conventional’ methods of relaying signals back to the studio are not available. But in the early days, broadcasters struggled to find a suitable technical method of getting Skype to air.

Skype had started offering a developer program and tools that allowed others to use its core technologies in their own software, but Amsterdam-based VidiGo, went a stage further. Using its Toolbox solution, which was originally created to iron out technical and workflow issues when merging PC-originated content into the broadcast environment, it decided to become a member of the Skype development community.

Using the tools provided by the Skype team, VidiGo successfully added a real ‘built-in’ Skype client into its Toolbox software. Although the employment of Skype was already much easier even when using the standard functions of the Toolbox, the integrated workflow added return-signal management, intercom and a variety of workflow enhancements.

These included a facility which allows the user to control audio and video input or return separately. With the new audio delay option, users could readily adjust audio for the perfect synchronisation.

A survey among Toolbox users who utilised Skype in their programmes revealed that over 80 per cent use the ‘built-in’ feature. So, clearly, the Skype application forms a welcome part of the Toolbox offering.

Enter Microsoft

Two years ago, Microsoft acquired Skype. Now, according to Peter IJkhout (pictured), the CTO for VidiGo and designer of the Toolbox solution, the software giant has decided to shut the doors for third party developers like VidiGo. “They closed the technical toolkits and support for any other solution other than its own. At the same time, Microsoft has recognised the potential in the broadcast industry and has introduced its own product called Skype TX.”

This solution is a result of Skype’s recent acquisition of long-time broadcast partner Cat and Mouse. According to Skype, the company has built on the existing Cat and Mouse technology to deliver hardware and software integration direct into a studio environment.

In a statement, Skype said “Our goal is to provide Skype users with the best experience possible, and we have invested heavily to improve reliability and quality to ensure a consistent, familiar experience across devices and platforms. Due to the platform restrictions, we will no longer support SkypeKit after July 2014 and have made changes to distribution agreement to minimise those impacted by these changes.”

(SkypeKit is the name of a collection of software and APIs (Application Programming Interface) that allows devices or applications connected to the internet to offer Skype voice and video calls.)

So, does this means the end of VidiGo’s Toolbox?

Other areas to explore

“Not at all, first of all Toolbox still offers the Skype functionality, only in a different workflow.” emphasises IJkhout. “And Toolbox is not only about Skype. That is just one of the many things people use it for. Although it is a small part of our solution, the Toolbox also offers a set of tools for broadcasters that really make their daily workflow easier, handling common image formats, using web content or playing audio and video files regardless of the codec used. As far as Skype goes, we offer a huge benefit over traditional scan-converter setups, even without the ‘built-in’ Skype functionality. That’s why broadcasters like BBC, NBC Universal, ZDF and RTL and many others have opted for this solution.”

IJkhout says that the ‘built-in’ Skype really reflects some workflow related ‘nice-to-haves’, not so much the technology side. Even without it users can still manage the most important feature, the return signal. “The current events might require some changes on our side in the next few months, but we will still be able to provide the best possible experience for our users, that is what counts most for me.”

According to IJkhout, Microsoft believes that Skype TX is the future for Skype in broadcast.“First I would like to mention that I see this as a huge compliment. Apparently our idea of modelling the Skype workflow for the professional broadcaster has caught their eyes, so much so they decided to enter the same market with their own solution Skype TX. Is it, as they like to market it, the best solution for using Skype on air? Perhaps. If you are willing to pay the price and allow yourself to be put into a Skype only solution.”

Positive outlook

IJkhout is keen to point out that some significant developments will take place over the next few months. “One substantial change will be the return signal management. This is currently tied to the ‘built-in’ Skype feature, but will be made available in a more generic fashion. A positive side effect of this change, by the way, is that users can then also use the return signal management tool for other conferencing methods, like Google Hangouts, Facebook and so on.”

Faced with this challenge of finding a way forward without the ‘built-in’ Skype has, IJkhout maintains, actually strengthened the Toolbox solution overall. It could, in reality, be a blessing in disguise.“I do believe that using the Toolbox for Skype conversations is a great example of how our solution acts as a real problem solver for broadcasters – and it will continue to do so.”

He says that it is worth remembering that, over the last view years, many good alternatives have been introduced for Skype. Some of them, like Google Hangouts, are gaining popularity rapidly. The Toolbox solution will continue to offer solutions for all of these options.

“At this moment we are seriously looking into the possibilities of adding in a ‘built-in’ feature for Google hangouts. Where Microsoft, after they bought Skype, basically decided to kill all relations with other developers, Google embraces initiatives like these and shows a lot of interest in working with third party developers to create a super-user-experience in any market, in our case broadcast. And this super-user-experience is exactly what I am after.”

He adds, “We may have taken a small knock from an industry giant, but it provides us with the incentive to go forward with even better innovations.”