Skype's GroupMe Acquisition Could Affect Microsoft Messaging Plans

Skype, in the midst of being acquired by Microsoft, has announced plans to purchase mobile messaging service GroupMe-but to what end?

Skype has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire GroupMe, which offers mobile group messaging service. Per standard procedure for acquisitions like this, the financial terms weren't disclosed. But considering how Skype's own acquisition by Microsoft is already well underway, any purchase by the former is likely to become a factor in the latter's operations.

For the moment, though, it's unclear how Skype/Microsoft intends to deploy GroupMe's assets. "We think the mobile group messaging space is very important," Skype CEO Tony Bates told The Wall Street Journal. "It means furthering the breaking down of barriers to global communications."

Under the terms of an $8.5 billion agreement announced earlier this year, Skype will become a business division within Microsoft, headed by Bates, and its assets baked into products such as Windows Phone and Xbox. Skype's considerable user base and products could allow Microsoft to compete more heartily in the communications realm against the likes of Google Android and Apple's iPhone, which have carved away huge chunks of the business and consumer market.

The U.S. Department of Justice approved the acquisition in June. Microsoft now faces the singular challenge of digesting Skype's assets and incorporating them into products that span the breadth of a massive company-not to mention monetize them in ways that don't repel Skype's built-in audience, so used to paying little-or-nothing for Voice over IP (VOIP) and video calling.

GroupMe's offerings include the ability to set up instant conference calls, group messaging, the ability to see your friends and contacts on a map and photo-sharing. Especially in the context of mobile devices, all those features could come in extra-handy for Microsoft at a time when its rivals also have their eye on robust messaging as a competitive differentiator.

Research In Motion's BlackBerry Messenger 6, for example, offers users the ability to chat within an application or game, as well as view lists of applications posted on BBM friends' profiles. It's available for download via BlackBerry App World. Sometime this fall, Apple will also release the next version of its mobile operating system, iOS 5, with a robust "iMessenger" conversation platform designed to take BBM head-on.

"Anyone with an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch can send unlimited free text messages to anyone else using an iOS device," Peter Misek, an analyst with research firm Jefferies & Co., wrote in a note soon after Apple announced the feature. "The two mainstays of RIM's sales have been corporate email users and consumer BBM users. While Apple lacks RIM's NOC/node infrastructure that allows for BBMing without a data plan with some carriers, [iMessenger] is otherwise a direct competitor."

It stands to reason that both Skype and Microsoft would be interested in offering something for mobile devices capable of competing with iMessenger and BBM 6. At this relatively early stage, though, it remains to be seen exactly how GroupMe's assets could end up incorporated into Skype/Microsoft's product array (in particular, Windows Phone). There's also the possibility that Skype made the acquisition in order to prevent GroupMe from falling into competing hands.

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