Skype on Mobile: What Would Be a Realistic Skype Announcement at CTIA Wireless Next Week?

Yesterday Om put up a GigaOm post, Skype on iPhone to be released as early as next week. While it’s still an unconfirmed “exclusive” rumor (and you can safely bet the eBay PR hounds are looking for any leak source if this is a leak), it does raise the issue of what we should expect the Skype experience to be if Skype for iPhone is released (even as a beta). It also raises the question of what is happening with the overall Skype on Mobile strategy outlined earlier this year by Skype COO Scott Durchslag in a blog post.

What I can confirm is that at the CES press conference back in January, Skype COO Scott Durchslag did say in an interview that Skype was looking to have Skype for iPhone at some future unannounced date. And I did meet the Skype for iPhone product manager at Skype’s CES 2009 reception; he was relieved that he could now at least give out his title, if not details. At the same CES press conference, Skype demonstrated calls made using its Java-based Skype Lite which has been in various forms of beta since last spring.

We’ve seen several attempts at accessing Skype on an iPhone(Truphone, Nimbuzz, Fring). I have also been using iSkoot on the BlackBerry (and at times Nokia N-series) smartphones as well as IM+ for Skype on various devices. Recently I have been able to check out the Skype IM feature of Skype Lite. Using and trialing these services have provided lots of details about feature set requirements for a fully-featured Skype user experience. As a result I have established some criteria for an acceptable “Skype on Mobile” experience.

  1. Skype Contacts: bring up a user’s complete list of Skype contacts (regardless of number of contacts); be able to find a contact by typing in the first few letters of a name, see the appropriate real time presence information; launch a Skype chat session or Skype voice call.
  2. User interface: I want to look at my Skype contacts, with presence information, and be able to hit the “green” call button on the device to initiate a call to a Skype contact. Hit the red “end call” button to terminate a call. (iSkoot on BlackBerry does this.)
  3. Chat messages: I want the device to be able to monitor my Skype IM activity in background, notify me of activity and bring it up at my convenience. (iSkoot on BlackBerry does this.) I also want Skype Public Chat threads maintained as a single session; Nimbuzz treats each participant in a Public Chat as separate “contact” sessions.
  4. Receiving calls; I want to be able to receive Skype calls whether I am in the “Skype-enabled” application or using another smartphone application. Receiving calls on the BlackBerry or Nokia smartphone is an option with iSkoot; with any iPhone application you must be in the application to receive a Skype call.
  5. Native address book integration: I want to be able to find a contact in the device’s native address book and be able to make a SkypeOut call to a selected Home/Business/Mobile/Other phone number. Truphone has always been diligent about including native address book access; iSkoot also provides this in its more recent releases.
  6. Mood message update: while not critical, it is definitely desirable to be consistent with a fully featured Skype service.
  7. Battery life management: I want to have minimal battery use; iSkoot demonstrates that handling all the chat and call signaling activity can drain a battery quite quickly, especially if on a WiFi connection. Using BlackBerry’s “push” API’s is one means of addressing this issue. Battery lifetime will be even more important on any potential iPhone application; battery management, including lifetime, has been one of iPhone’s weaker points.
  8. Call quality. While certainly limited by the mobile networks’ and smartphones’ inherent audio bandwidth, issues such as echo cancellation and call break-up have arisen with some services. Once again this has not been an issue on iSkoot for BlackBerry calls; however, I have found these issues to occur on calls to Skype contacts via Fring and Truphone on the iPhone.
  9. Network quality: I have yet to have a good 3G network experience with AT&T; I have mentioned this in the past during recent trips to California and Nevada. Om has written about it to the point where he switched to using a 8900 Curve on T-Mobile after giving up on Bold and iPhone on AT&T. My vacation location this week only has AT&T 2G service available and, even then, it is minimal reliability. (T-Mobile 2G definitely has “more bars” here.) My only recommendation here can be, if you wish great 3G reliability and reception on a BlackBerry Bold or iPhone, move to Canada and use Rogers where 3G network availability and quality has never been an issue for me.

Here is my current Skype access on mobile situation:

  • iSkoot provides excellent call quality as well as chat sessions in background (including content from sessions over the previous day or two). iSkoot’s major technical downside relates to battery drain, an issue that is correctable via newer “push” API’s. Costs will vary by my smartphone location:
    • Within the Toronto local calling area: no charge for voice or data.
    • Within Canada: long distance charges (~$0.25/minute) for voice; no charge for data. It’s still cost effective to use iSkoot.
    • Outside Canada: roaming charges ($0.95/minute in U.S.; much more in Europe) plus long distance charges make iSkoot a very expensive service. Only Skype services on 3 have partially addressed this issue in all the countries served by 3.
  • Truphone’s Skype access:
    • Voice: Truphone for iPhone provides unacceptable Skype call quality (serious echo cancellation issues) but can complete calls to Skype contacts over a WiFi access point. The Truphone client must be open to receive Skype voice calls. Truphone Anywhere, which requires access to the carrier’s network for voice, has the same cost considerations as listed for iSkoot above. (To give due credit, a Truphone call over WiFi this afternoon directly to one of my iPhone contacts did not have echo issues.)
    • Chat: The Truphone client can only support IM chat sessions when the Truphone client is open. The content seen comprises only those messages exchanged while in the “current” chat session; all chat sessions are closed when you leave the Truphone application; previous content is not recallable.
  • Skype for Mobile (aka Skype Lite) on Nokia E71:
    • As making Skype voice calls is reliant on having carrier relationships, I can only access Skype chat activity via WiFi; in this case previous Skype chat sessions can be recalled. Skype has announced they are working with carriers in ten named countries but no other details have been provided.

While I would expect any Skype on iPhone offering would use the “Skype Lite”/iSkoot /Truphone Anywhere architecture involving use of the data channel for chat and call signaling but the inherent carrier voice channel for voice, recall that Skype Lite is basically a Java application that has been in beta for some time whereas iPhone on Skype would require a relatively new and yet-to-be-beta-tested Apple OS/X application. On the other hand, iPhone 3.0 will address some of these issues.

Bottom line – there are many issues to be addressed to have Skype on the iPhone  maintain Skype’s reputation for providing an easy-to-use, reliable, scalable consumer service. While I won’t totally discount the rumors of Skype on iPhone, my prediction for what Skype may announce next week at CTIA Wireless: carrier agreements related to using Skype Lite:

  • First announced last April (as Skype for Mobile), Skype Lite is at the point where Skype needs to announce some carrier agreements to demonstrate that Skype Lite actually has carrier adoption.
  • Carrier adoption is critical to the business model for generating revenue from Skype Lite.
  • It would be consistent with the Skype for Mobile strategy about which Scott Durchslag blogged during the Mobile World Conference in February.
  • This is a major international conference where wireless carriers and vendors do business.

We’ll be looking forward to seeing what announcements do come out next week.

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About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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