In announcing his company's $8.5 billion blockbuster acquisition of internet telephony leader Skype, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer kvelled: "We are committed to making it even easier for people to communicate over the Internet from anywhere in the world."

No, wait. That was Microsoft Network VP Laura Jennings back in 1997, describing the company's blockbuster acquisition of "Web-mail pioneer" Hotmail in words strikingly similar to those mouthed last week by Ballmer, when he said of Skype: "Together we will create the future of real-time communications so people can easily stay connected to family, friends, clients, and colleagues anywhere in the world."

You can understand the confusion. You can also understand why many industry observers were underwhelmed by the acquisition—Microsoft's biggest ever—given the Redmond software giant's track record of acquiring market leaders and frittering them away into also-ran status.

Skype brings with it 170 million "connected users" and top-notch if ubiquitous voice-over-internet technology. But the bigger question is whether Microsoft can leverage one of Skype's most valuable assets—its almost-subversive free-phone-call stick-it-to-The-Man brand—as it attempts to fend off competition from marketing masters like Apple and Google.

Yeah, sure, just like with Hotmail, it makes total sense to integrate Skype into Microsoft's product suite. "The addition... serves as a perfect complement to our existing software and services," said Microsoft's Robbie Bach, um, in 2008, regarding the ill-fated acquisition of Danger, Inc. and its once popular Sidekick smartphone software.

You get the point. Whether Microsoft does remains to be seen. recommended