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Skype Gives Microsoft an Engagement Present, Buys GroupMe

To say that this week's news about Skype buying GroupMe raised a few eyebrows is, of course, an understatement. After all, Skype itself is the target of an acquisition, thanks to a mammoth $8.5 billion bid from Microsoft that's awaiting the expected regulatory OK. So why is Skype making this move?

Since no one has ever heard of GroupMe (and yes, that includes me), a bit of research is in order. GroupMe, it turns out, is a small, 20 person firm that makes a group messaging solution for smart phone, including the iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and Windows Phone; there's an SMS option for other phone types as well. In the new 3.0 version of its software, GroupMe is adding a Questions service, direct messaging, and web chat capabilities.

According to Skype, the GroupMe purchase is about fulfilling Skype's vision of anywhere/anytime communications. "It complements our existing leadership in voice and video communications by providing best in class mobile text-based communications and innovative features around group messaging that enable users to connect, share locations and photos and make plans with their closest ties," Skype CEO Tony Bates writes. "This latest acquisition, coupled with our acquisition of Qik earlier this year, augments our role as an innovator in driving unique mobile user experiences."

The press release doesn't add much info.

"There is a natural affinity between Skype and GroupMe and our goal is to continue developing tools that make it easier for people to communicate, share, and stay in touch with their close and important ties," said Jared Hecht, GroupMe's Co-Founder. "Integrating GroupMe into the Skype experience is an amazing opportunity for us and accelerates the execution of our vision tenfold," added Steve Martocci, GroupMe's Co-Founder.

OK, but what is this really about?

My understanding is that Google investigated purchasing Skype but walked away because it would have to rearchitect Skype's backend. Since then, of course, Google has successfully launched Google+, which most obviously competes with Facebook. But Google is also evolving Google+ with mobile apps that will allow its users to communicate in real time on the go. GroupMe seems to deliver similar functionality on smart phones, and of course Apple is doing something similar with iMessage.

Because Skype is essentially Microsoft--everyone expects that deal to be quickly approved--what we're seeing here is the drawing of battle lines. RIM started off the group messaging stuff with its Blackberry Messaging service, but newer entries like Google+, Facebook, iMessage, and now Skype GroupMe provide this kind of functionality to the other major vendors.

What I like about GroupMe is the cross-platform aspect, à la Facebook, but superior to what Google offers. (Does anyone really think we're going to see a Windows Phone Google+ client?) And it's way ahead of the insular, single-platform BMS and iMessage solutions.

So will this amount to anything? We'll see. But kudos to Skype for taking everyone by surprise and providing yet another reason Microsoft was right to be interested in this company. That's some decisive maneuvering right there.

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