Skype for iPad as Business App of the Year? Puhleeze.

The folks over at IT Pro had their IT Pro Awards 2011 recently. They awarded a few different honours. Some innovative, others pretty predictable. I struggle to care that Microsoft won “Vendor of the Year”? What does that even mean? And if it’s a category that Microsoft won, who else even had a chance of winning it? Oracle? IBM? HP? And those are 4 of the biggest anyways, so it’s not like this award will create some new recognition or awareness of a vendor.

The only thing I think awards are useful for is if you understand why they are awarded. What did candidate A have that candidate B did not? The IT Pro awards appear to be a simple popularity contest. That is, random web site visitors had a set of candidates to choose from, and they chose for whatever reason. If the candidates were judged on criteria (e.g., originality, fitness for purpose, reliability, value for money) I would love to see how the winners (and losers) scored. But these awards are meaningless. There’s no judging. Just popularity of clicks.What galls me is that Skype is tweeting (both @skype and @skype4biz) about how Skype for iPad was awarded “Business App of the Year” for 2011. The idea that Skype is a business app and that it is an app worthy of praise are both laughable. Unlike the folks over at IT Pro, I have criteria for these things.

What is a Business App?

To be a “business app,” it has to integrate with my business. It has to do somethinganything—to talk to some other IT system in my business. How does Skype do that? It doesn’t. It doesn’t have even the tiniest integration into anything other than its own contact list. I can’t hook it up to LDAP, ActiveDirectory, or even my contacts at some other service like Hotmail, GMail, Yahoo! or AIM. If it is a standalone app with zero integration into my business, it is not a “business app.” Sorry guys. You might call it “the app that is accidentally the most beneficial to business” but that’s a different award.

As for it being a good app? You’re joking, right? It works. That’s the long and short of it. It will connect to other Skype users and you can talk to them. I have had rock solid, full-motion video calls over 3G using my iPad. I loved it. So, there’s props for what they do right. Beyond that, it is an unmitigated train wreck of an application. Just look at the user interface.

Abuser Interface

Skype UI
Skype User Interface

I have taken the surnames off the users, but I don’t have 5 contacts named Adrian or two contacts named Ajoy. There are 3 different Adrians there and 1 Ajoy, but a couple of the Adrians have more than one phone number. My Skype user interface (version 3.5.454 on an iPad2 running iOS 5.0.1) puts a single gigantic icon on the screen for each phone number. That’s right, one icon per number, not one icon per person. With all this screen real estate on an iPad, they choose a layout that only puts 20 contacts on the screen at the same time! (Ironically, Apple’s Contacts app only shows 12 at a time! Only 3 more than my iPhone 4) Where is the list of users? Why can’t I have name down one column and phone number down the other (so I can see whether I’m dialing their work, home or mobile)? And really, in 2011, do we have the technology to understand that a single person might have more than one phone number!? This app is only a few months old. How did they write something this bad in 2011?

Contacts? We don’t need no steenking contacts?

And I can’t jump to groups of users by letter (e.g., can’t jump to users beginning with A or M or P). I have about 300 users in my phone, which means about 700 icons on my iPad screen. Do you think I’m going to flick through these with gestures? Fat chance. So I can search at the top of the screen. That’s helpful, but this UI design is still totally flawed and fundamentally useless. Can I sort by last name instead of first letter? No. Can I display “Lastname, Firstname”? No. App of the year indeed. The contacts list on my Palm Professional in 1998 was better than this.

And Skype contacts aren’t shown alongside iPad contacts. They’re over in their own separate page. By contrast, the way Apple gets stuff like this right is by hiding stupid details like the difference between a Skype contact and a phone contact. Think of how iMessage transparently works out whether or not it can use the data connection or must use an SMS. Skype should teach me not to care whether I’m reaching my colleague by Skype or by phone. You want to sell more Skype credit, right? Hide the distinction between real phone numbers and skype IDs a little better. Blur the lines. Let there be just one contact for “James Smith” and let it include his Skype, mobile number (for SMS via Skype credit) and other numbers. When I tap on James, ask me how I want to connect. But don’t give me 2 unlabeled icons for James in this screen (one for home, one for mobile) and another unlabeled icon for him back on a different page (where his Skype account is).

Only one other feature left: history management

And the history. I can ‘edit’ my history, but that’s a stupid feature. What does it take to delete an item from the history? Two taps no matter what. I can drag left to right to reveal the ‘delete’ button, and then I can tap delete. Or I can tap the ‘edit’ button and do two different taps: tap the red delete symbol and then tap ‘delete’. But only one at a time. I can’t tap a bunch of them and then delete all the ones I marked. So who cares? Why do I have two modes of deleting history items that both operate on items one at a time and both take two taps to delete an item?

This is not iDevice UI design. This is half-baked mimickry of other apps. Think of the bulk delete in the Mail app and you’ll see what bulk delete is supposed to look like. Notice that the iMessage feature in iOS has a ‘clear all’ button and you’ll see what Skype is missing in its history management. And what about deleting all history items from contact A while leaving the ones related to contact B?

And configuration options? Preferences? Tweaks to the UI to customise it to my tastes? None.

Conclusion

If I were nominating Skype for iPad as an Anything of the Year, it would be “Worst User Interface I was Willing to Put Up With Because the Features Were Compelling Enough“. Or “Feature So Beneficial to Business that I Would Use It Despite It’s Awful UI“. This app only has a handful of UI features to begin with. And each one is amateurish and clumsy. It makes you wonder if the team members that work on Skype for iPad actually own and use iPads in their daily lives. It’s hard to believe that they do.

2 Comments

  1. Andre Gironda

    Yes, I have seen the AppAdvice and similar rhetoric elsewhere.

    If you have any interest in any of the features in Skype, you’ll be happy to find out that Google Plus Hangouts with Extras is an excellent alternative. Yes, there are now many browsers that support Flash and Google websites on the iPad these days.

    If you like Google Docs and GitHub, then you may have already satisfied a majority of your business needs. Once you add Google Plus Hangouts with Extras, I don’t see what else you might need.

    1. I am not looking for specific features in any app. If I was looking for any app that had the features I wanted, but was easy to use, I’d dump Skype for iPad and go find an equivalent. I know the equivalents exist. I didn’t mention Google sites or Flash or GitHub at all, either. So the fact that lots of browsers support them isn’t relevant to the discussion. I was complaining about Skype writing a very crappy version of their client. Now, if there was a Skype client that connected to Skype users, but had a better UI, that would be an interesting app.

      People technologically ossify. They eventually stop changing apps/platforms/networks to get a better implementation of a feature they already have. Most people don’t switch email clients easily (I know people still using Pine). Most people don’t switch web browsers readily. As I try to connect with people via voice/video over the network, I don’t switch from app to app and network to network. The most important feature of Skype is that dozens of people I collaborate with are already there and connected to me. So this was a UI rant, not a “which videoconferencing network is best?” rant.

      As for Google Docs, most of the docs and data I work with are under non-disclosure or some other restriction, so storing them or editing them vaguely in the cloud (i.e., Google Docs or GitHub) isn’t an option.

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