One of the major themes of this year's Build developer conference in San Francisco is "Conversations as a Platform." Microsoft envisions ushering in an era of conversational intelligence, in which devices, software tools and cloud services coalesce to form intelligent "conversational canvases," as CEO Satya Nadella termed the concept during his keynote presentation yesterday.
One of those canvases is Skype, the popular voice and video communications software with more than 300 million users. One way Microsoft is readying Skype for the conversational computing era is with helper bots and Cortana integration.
"The Skype that you know and love is going to be smarter, more helpful and entertaining," said Lilian Rincon, principal group program manager of the Skype Consumer division at Microsoft, during her presentation at Build yesterday. "We are moving into a world where you will soon be able to plan trips, shop, even talk to intelligent bots, all from within Skype chats."
Using a Windows smartphone, Rincon then demonstrated how a Skype text chat can act as a springboard to interconnected experiences and new opportunities for brands to engage with customers.
Within a Skype chat session, Cortana, Microsoft's digital assistant technology, picked up a mention of the upcoming Codess conference in a video message that was sent to Rincon. Cortana then assisted her in blocking off the conference dates in her calendar and connecting her with a Skype bot belonging to the Westin Hotel group to help book a room based on the information previously gathered by Cortana.
In between these steps, Cortana helped schedule a pending delivery by brokering a conversation with a third-party bot via a private chat session. Cortana also suggested contacting a friend who lives in the area of the upcoming event and prepopulated an outgoing chat message with details about the dates Rincon will be spending in the area.
Beyond text-based chat, Microsoft is extending the experience to other forms of Skype communications.
"We will also be bringing intelligence into real-time video," said Rincon. Video bots enable businesses and brands to offer interactive and presumably immersive audio and video experiences powered by Skype's video communications capabilities.
To familiarize the Skype user base with bots, Microsoft released updated client software for Windows, Android, iPhone and iPad. Users in select regions (Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, India, New Zealand, Singapore and the United States) can access a small collection of chat-only Skype bots, including Bing, Getty Images and Murphy, a Microsoft bot that answers "what if" questions. Bots that support audio and video calling are in the works.
To help developers get started, Microsoft made the Skype Bot software development kit (SDK) available for download yesterday. In May, the company is hosting a hackathon to encourage developers to build new bots. In a nod to the Internet of things-enabled future the IT industry is scurrying to bring about, Microsoft said it envisions users interacting with Skype Bots to help control their smart homes, shop, order food, play games and more.