While returning to the home office from my workout yesterday morning, before I started driving, I pulled out my Blackberry 8820, selected the iSkoot icon to open iSkoot (which auto logs into Skype), selected a Skype contact in the U.K., clicked on Call, heard a message asking me to “please wait while the call is completed” and within seconds I was talking to my contact in the U.K.
We talked for 15 minutes (over my nXZen Bluetooth headset for obvious safety reasons). A simple, straight forward, familiar user experience — total cost was a 15 minute charge against my Rogers wireless monthly subscription for a local call (from iSkoot’s Toronto POP to my phone). Even the callback operation itself was transparent to the user. In fact, it meets my “Truphone test” for user experience: Look up a contact in a device address book, select which phone number, press the Call button and the call is connected with no further user action.
If this sounds similar to the 3 Skypephone experience, it is. In my case the Skype button is replaced by the iSkoot icon on the Blackberry. Bottom line is that whether via 3 Skypephone or my Blackberry over Rogers a connection is readily made and there are minimal, if any, charges. And it is a very familiar user experience, comparable to making wireless calls via the service provider’s native (GSM) voice network. (Photo above: Blackberry 8820 running iSkoot and Skypephone together at Fall VON session on Goin’ Mobile with Skype.)
Since the introduction of the 3 Skypephone two weeks ago I have seen many commentaries attempting to find issues with the offering. Very simply stated the 3 Skypephone offers:
- Free Skype-to-Skype calling worldwide, reducing or eliminating international long distance charges, provided your contact is also on Skype (on any platform)1.
- Free Skype IM (presence and chat)
- Unlimited Internet browsing
provided you contract to purchase a monthly minimum of £12 of traditional voice and SMS text messaging services from Hutchison Whampoa’s 3 Service. on an 18 month contract; the phone itself is then free. Alternatively you can purchase the Skypephone for £49.95 and do a minimum £10 monthly Pay-As-You-Go top up.
The Skypephone hardware is a quad-band GSM/UMTS2 phone over GSM/EDGE 2G and GSM/UMTS 3G networks. It includes a 2MP camera and video camera along with music services including a (MP3) media player as well as a voice recorder. Think of the additional Skype button as an iSkoot icon on any other iSkoot-supported device such as the Blackberry 8xxx’s and Nokia N-series phones.
Fundamentally, the 3 Skypephone is a promotion to encourage generation of traditional mobile voice business over the 3 network. As a result there is no SkypeOut included whereas with iSkoot I can access SkypeOut numbers. In fact the lack of SkypeOut on the 3 Skypephone service will virally encourage Skype adoption by users’ contacts who are outside the 3 network service areas.
A key benefit of the 3 Skypephone to the rest of the mobile user world is that it is a pioneering carrier-supported service that threatens to be another crack in a disruption of the traditional mobile voice service business models.
Using my Blackberry I get my equivalent voice service with only the requirement to have a Rogers wireless subscription for a set number of minutes per month (I am not on contract at the moment), which I need anyway.
But there are some other comments in the blogosphere that also can affect the user experience3:
- Having the Skype client on a server (and not on the Skypephone) means longer battery charge lifetimes for the mobile device and a more robust, carrier grade overall platform for connecting to Skype.4
- Roaming on other networks is expensive regardless of your carrier. In fact, this was the number one issue discussed at a recent blogger dinner at Fall VON.
- Should you have a Blackberry 8xxx or Nokia N-Series phone you can install iSkoot and have a similar user experience on any GSM network worldwide. In fact, 3 itself encourages the use of Skype for their X-Series customers using any of the Nokia: N73, E65, 6120 and N95; Sony Ericsson: W950i; or LG Shine U970 smartphones.
- UMA/GAN provides an alternative path to low cost, familiar voice calling through its seamless transition of voice calls and data between GSM/2G/3G wireless and WiFi access hotspots.
- Whether using VoIP or UMA/GAN carriers will still want to have some revenue generating plan, even if it is fixed rate. Both 3’s Skypephone offering with the promotion described above and T-Moible USA’s Hotspot @ Home unlimited use, but fixed rate, service represent the type of plan we can expect to see going forward.
There are three advantages to using the Blackberry 8820 and iSkoot:
- Having a QWERTY keyboard makes it a much easier to enter text messages, whether in Skype IM or SMS
- The WiFi inherent to the 8820 (or 8320 Curve) can significantly reduce carrier data plan usage, especially important when your carrier has no “unlimited” data plan.
- Blackberries inherently have the best battery management and charge lifetime of any mobile devices.
The only issue I cannot fully address is the Skypephone’s voice quality. Certainly the Blackberry-based call I made was limited to the <~3 kHz audio bandwidth of a cell phone and did not inhibit the conversation. Until I know the voice engine within the Skypephone and with no experience using it, I cannot comment. (Link to an experience using Skype on a mobile device with a wideband voice engine.) However, the reviews linked below speak favorably of the voice quality.
Bottom line: it’s the user experience that matters. In architecting the service its goal has to be ease-of-use, robustness and reliability along with a service plan that will be very attractive to generating customers. Using my criteria for evaluating mobile Skype services, it stands up quite well in both in terms of features, especially Skype features, and the user experience. And may it contribute to driving lower mobile user costs for both voice calls and mobile web activities.
- Time Online: On test: the 3 Skypephone
The other great feature of the phone is the ease of use. You sign in on the handset with your Skype account details at the outset. This takes less than a minute. Once signed on, you press a single Skype key and the screen shows all your contacts and their status, exactly as you would see on your computer. You can use Skype to chat or call them. Pretty simple.
- Technical Itch: 3 Skypephone Review
The Skype phone is all about free phone calls, and opening Skype to a whole new mobile audience, and for that purpose it does a good job. With a sub £50 price tag on PAYG it represents great value for money.
- A Primer for Skype’s Direction: Mobile Conversations
1 Note there is a cap of 10,000 IM messages per month (333 messages/day) and 4,000 Skype minutes per month (2 hour 20 minutes/day). With a T9 keyboard you would be hard pressed to generate 100 chat messages per day.
2 900 MHz, 1800 Mhz, 1900 MHz GSM and 2100 MHz UMTS. Without the 850 MHz band, it is not suitable for North American GSM use. Yes, as evidenced by the photo above, I saw a Skypephone running on AT&T while at Fall VON.
3 Normally I would refer to a press release received by many bloggers in the past couple of days but in this case the release was quite pretentious and misinformed with the result that I don’t want to give it any publicity that it really does not deserve.
4 Today a very significant portion of all long distance calls use VoIP at some stage in the connection between end points; the carriers just don’t want to announce that they too have figured out how VoIP can reduce their service costs. The key here is that the VoIP interface does not have to be on the end point device to achieve a cost saving, whether for the user or the carrier.