Skype for Linux 5.0 Beta and the rise of the bots


Updated: April 5, 2017

As the popular saying goes, when it rains, it pours. After having been exposed to the somewhat older, more conservative 4.X version of Skype for a very long time, we now have a beta release for Skype 5.0, roughly six months since the alpha edition. That one turned out to be quite decent and fairly stable.

I decided to give this new release its due test, on Fedora 25. I grabbed the RPM package, and what follows is the sum of my experience. It should tell us where the future of the most popular VoIP client is heading, and what it means for Linux folks.

Teaser

Installation & setup

Trivial. Get the RPM from the official site, and install it. I believe the DEB file behaves just as timidly, although I did not do any testing on the relevant architecture. Best of all, Skype for Linux 5.0 Beta installs as a separate package from the production 4.X version, so you can actually run both side by side. You can also identify them by different icons as well as binary paths (/usr/bin/skype versus /usr/bin/skypeforlinux). This may change in the future, but it is great for beta testing.

Skype 5.0 Beta installed

The new Skype is responsive. Fast. The login screen launches almost instantly compared to the 4.X branch, which takes a few seconds. The new UI is simplified, flatter, more abstract, perhaps more difficult to use due to its over-large, touch-friendly, too-white, low-contrast layout, but it does have a certain crispness and friendliness that aligns well with cross-platform support and a not-so-subtle nod toward mobile.

Login screen

Contacts, calls & settings

Worked really fine. I was able to make voice and video calls, add new contacts, all sorts of things you want and expect from a VoIP client. Behaved well, without any errors or bugs. The new interface is nude compared to the old one, but it does what you need, and that's the important part.

Contacts, funny

Really, such a popular name.

Voice call

Video call

Voice and video calls worked just fine, except when people ignore you.

Chat

Settings

Tools

You can also do real phone calls, buy and add credit and then use the Skype telephony with its fairly decent rates to call any which number you want. This is nothing new or revolutionary, but I am happy that Linux Beta is behaving well.

Phone calls

Artificial intelligence

I mentioned this when testing the alpha version. Bots. Virtual contacts that you can add, and then interact with using something approaching natural language. Bots come in all shapes and sizes. Essentially, they are the many faces of Janus, I mean Cortana.

Bots

Healthcare bot

Bots in action 1

Bots in action 2

Some will take you away from Skype, breaking the flow.

I spent a healthy portion of my afternoon playing with these bots, testing their capabilities. The Turing test is a tough one. Most of these bots fail basic interactions, and they are also very heavily geared for the US audience. If you stray from the West Coast notion of fun and associated acronyms, you may struggle finding the right information. For now, the bots are vague and imprecise, and as it turns out, accuracy is the most critical element of artificial intelligence. Otherwise, the bots are just annoying little pests that spew memes and irrelevant cliche sentences.

Bots in action 3

These bots aren't Skype per se - but they are Skype, you see. They did moderately badly, but they are entertaining. The annoying bug is - at least in this beta version - if you scroll and then try to click on any one, the first click will jump you back to the top of the list. Most bots come in three major flavors - health, with the necessary disclaimers, travel, and games. Highly relevant stuff isn't there yet. But then, neither Siri not Alexa nor Cortana do anything meaningful today. A novelty without being novel.

Bots in action 4

Suicidal memes, how original. Wrong side of the Internet, AGAIN!

Also, music is sometimes restricted per region and/or application, so time and again, reality yanks you back, and you must put the dream world aside. Well, bots are nice, and entirely up to your discretion, so you can ignore them, if you want.

Music

Music, restricted

Now, here's a prediction ...

Not yet, but they will become this indispensible personal assistant, embedded in the one software that has all your contacts, be they friends or your business colleagues. And of course, being able to use the same interface to order groceries, buy plane tickets, or schedule your next enema definitely has a lot of appeal for the chic urbanite.

Indeed, a standalone AI assistant like Cortana is easy to ignore because it does not do anything special on its own. It complements other forms of functionality, like calendar, calls and whatnot. If you actively use Skype, you might be more enticed to have some embedded help, especially if it can be granular, tailored and not as intrusive as all-system boy scout watching your every movement, including the moments of solitude when you feel like taping your webcam over, ahem.

Conclusion

Skype for Linux 5.0 Beta works well. It's stable, mature, and it comes with a slew of interesting options and features. The UI also responds faster than the older version, and while you may be opposed to this whole new supra-flat mobile-friendly approach, this new Skype is down with Chrome and Firefox, and it gives you the full plethora of voice, video and some bots as cake sprinkling.

The question is, will we see intrusive stuff like silly home screens and other Windows features bless the Linux side of the world, too? Well, unknown at this point, but I guess the focus is on soft, suggestive advertising, hence the bots, rather than in-your-face Flash banners that looks weird and outdated and just plain wrong. Ignoring the future and philosophy, Skype 5.0 is definitely worth a spin. I believe you will find it a refreshing addition to your daily repertoire. All in all, thumbs up. To be continued.

Cheers.

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