Skype is redefining the "phone"

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/14/2006 - 07:34

eBay's purchase of Skype, the Internet phone service, appears to be reaping dividends in terms of new features for the phone service. Skype has been making more frequent upgrades to the software and service, and in the process, is redefining the telephone.

We used to think of the telephone as an object. It is now a piece of software and an associated service, completely independent of a particular physical object. You can run Skype on your computer with a headset, but manufacturers are also producing "Skype phones" which have the basic Skype service protocols built in, so you can plug them into your computer but use the phone to dial calls just like an "old fashioned" phone.

The company is taking many different features and services and combining them into a unified interface--something other companies are trying to do but with less success. Skype seems to be taking a page from Apple and focusing intently on designing really good software to make the service easy to use from beginning to end. The company has excellent help tips and instructions, and the newest version of Skype with videoconferencing recognized my camera without making me do anything to set that feature up.

Skype is adding SMS, file sharing, conference calling, video calls, and voicemail, among other features. And Skype can also call to "old" telephone landlines. Some of these things cost money, but Skype is pursuing the now classic Internet model of giving part of the service away for free. With eBay's deep pockets, Skype may well come to dominate the phone space, whether we like it or not. Internet advocates are working on an Open Source equivalent called Gizmo, which has many of the same features, but Gizmo, which relies on volunteers to add new features, may not be able to keep up with a steady stream of new features coming from Skype. But free does not always mean good. I've tried to use Skype's conference call feature, and the quality is mixed, as is just person to person Skype calls, because the service is heavily dependent on the quality of your Internet connection and all the connections between you and the person on the other end. Skype is one reason the phone companies are calling for a two tier Internet with toll booths. The phone and cable companies want to extort, er, I mean, charge Skype fees for carrying their traffic. But that's not a solution, it's just another problem, mostly for users.

What is likely is that the notion of having a single "phone" number or even just one or two phone numbers, is long gone. We'll have to have multiple voice services and accounts to accommodate friends, family, and business associates. As long as we can forward our phone calls from one "number" to another, we should generally benefit from a very rich set of features....if we can figure out how to use them all.

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