Skype 4.0 for Windows Brings Back Compact Screen, Group Contacts

eBay's Skype VOIP telephony business adds some improvements to the second beta of Skype 4.0 for Windows, including the return of the compact screen and group contact capabilities. Reintroducing features from Skype 3.8 seems retro, but Skype needed to make the moves to keep its over 300 million users happy. Such improvements could lead new VOIP and telephony customers looking for free messaging and collaboration apps to Skype in a time of financial distress.

Skype on Oct. 1 will launch the second Skype 4.0 beta for Windows with improvements to the way users view and access their VOIP conversations, as well as better instant messaging alerts. Skype 4.0 Beta 2 will be downloadable here beginning Oct. 1.

The move follows criticism from users after eBay's Skype division on June 18 issued the first beta of Skype 4.0 for Windows with radical design changes that put off some of the service's over 300 million users. More than 350,000 Skype users have been using Skype 4.0 daily since June.
The thrust of the first iteration of Skype 4.0 for Windows was one-click video, as well as consolidating conversations, including calls, video calls and IM, in one location so that users didn't have to manipulate multiple windows to find information.
That is still the case in the second beta for Windows, particularly because more than 25 percent of Skype calls made currently include video, according to Mike Bartlett, director of Skype product management for Windows, but some changes have been made.
For example, Skype 4.0 Beta 2 has a compact screen view capability as an alternative to the default full-screen view that angered many users.
Users want to be able to access their contact lists or Word documents alongside their IM chats, so the compact view lets users toggle between the larger default screen view and the smaller window users were accustomed to in earlier versions of Skype. Skype also brought back contact categories so that users could again group their contacts together.
There are also better IM alerts. Previously, Skype users logging on in the morning had large numbers of messages coming to their screens, and many users turned them off because they were intrusive. However, some of these same people complained that they were unaware that people were trying to contact them.

"What we picked [up on] during the beta was that we had a problem with the way that we presented instant messaging, in particular incoming chat messages," Bartlett said.
That's a huge human engineering gaffe for a VOIP and IM provider; if users don't know when people are trying to contact them, what is the point of presence technology?
That's why Beta 2 includes a system tray alert that pops up when users receive IMs, as well as a new icon alert with an animated message count in the bottom right-hand corner so users can see when someone is trying to contact them.
Beyond that, the features from Beta 1 of Skype 4.0 for Windows are largely intact. In fact, this release is curious because it's actually pretty retro. The "reintroduced" functionality is from earlier versions of Skype that the business had stripped out of Skype 4.0 Beta 1, angering plenty of users.
For example, one anonymous reader write June 18:

"It starts in full-screen mode, and cannot be reduced enough to get it out of the way. The user interface is awful, ugly, and generally insulting. Contacts are arranged in some bizarre fashion which makes it difficult to find any particular person."

Skype's customers may largely be in the consumer sector, with people using the free VOIP software to contact friends and family overseas instead of spending big bucks on long-distance phone calls. But the business faces a golden opportunity in light of the current financial meltdown.
Analysts say the use of real-time communication and collaboration tools will pick up in businesses. What could be more cost-effective for a business looking to curb phone and travel expenses than to use a service like Skype as the main communications pillar?
Skype seems to have avoided the bugs that shut it down for days in 2007, so businesses may want to give the service a shot if cost-cutting is a serious consideration. They might be pleasantly surprised, particularly in light of the improved video-calling capabilities.
Check back here on eWEEK for some screenshots of the new capabilities.