Having provided an overview of why Skype has had so much appeal, let’s move on to understanding the features of Skype as well as some hardware and software basics in order to get started using Skype (or even to gain an understanding of the full potential of the Skype calling experience).
Voice, Video or Chat?
A brief history: Skype started out as a voice calling service accompanied by Instant Messaging (text chat and presence). Its initial appeal was free voice calling between Windows PC’s where the Skype software was installed. It even provided the ability to extend those free calls across five Skype-enabled participants. You could readily transfer files between call participants. Voice quality was better than the standard telephone when you had good broadband (cable or DSL) Internet connections at both ends. And eight years after it launched, Skype-to-Skype voice and one-to-one video calls remain cost-free.
Today Skype can also be installed on Mac and Linux PC’s. A user on a Windows or Mac PC can host a multi-party call with up to 25 participants and/or hold Group Chat sessions at no cost to the host or participants. Skype recently introduced 10-party Group Video calling as one component of a premium service that includes Live Chat support.
Starting in the spring of 2010 Skype has extended its support to popular smartphones and tablets, including iPhone (and iPod Touch), iPad, Android phones and Nokia phones. Additionally Verizon subscribers in the U.S. can take advantage of its unique Skype service on Android and BlackBerry smartphones that use Verizon’s services.
Having taken some initial steps in 2010, Skype for TV has emerged into a major platform with availability on designated Internet-enabled TV’s from Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Sharp, Toshiba and Vizio. Panasonic and Sony have introduced BluRay players that support Skype for TV; this extends Skype’s reach to any home theater setup that can use these players.
On August 31, 2011 Skype announced the availability of hardware that allows you to make and receive Skype calls from an existing touch tone home phone as well as a dual line PC-free phone. Either shares Skype and a landline such that Skype can become your basic long distance service for an existing landline service.
Skype’s core services comprise:
- voice (traditional voice calls, conference calls)
- text messaging (chat, SMS)
- conversation archiving
- video calling
- directory services
- group chat
- calling services:
- voice mail
- call forwarding
- call transfer
- file transfer
The above example comes from the Skype client on a Windows PC where all the features are available; these services are also available on Mac’s running OS/X 5.0 and later and Linux PC’s. On PC-Free phones and many mobile devices, functionality is usually limited to voice, presence, voice mail and maybe text chat.
Skype's Core Features
While Skype is often associated with voice calls (or more traditionally phone calls), you will quickly learn that Skype’s Instant Messaging (chat and presence indication) can become your primary use of Skype. Skype IM is especially useful when your friends and business colleagues:
- need a quick response, especially a Yes/No answer
- want to provide or confirm reference information, such as spelling of a word or name, phone numbers, email addresses and URL’s “in writing” or
- simply want to confirm if s/he is available to take a voice and/or video call
- want to hold an ongoing, informal “water cooler” discussions while you work
Keep in mind that Skype Chat on your PC also archives your conversations such that information such as, say, URL’s, phone numbers and exchanged contact information can later be searched within the Chat History associated with that Contact. Chat becomes a productivity tool because you can have very brief conversations without going through all the “Hello, how are you? and let’s discuss the weather?” etiquette associated with initiating a voice call. But the chat feature is only available when using Skype on a PC or mobile smartphone.
Skype, however, has extended the chat concept to Group Chats (moderator invites participants) and Public Chats (open to anyone who wishes to join) which can serve as persistent, worldwide virtual water cooler conversations for either a designated topic or general use.
Free Skype-to-Skype voice calling was Skype’s initial attraction, especially in countries where (monopolistic) landline carriers relied on high charges for their services. The combination of Skype (along with other IP-based communications services) and evolution of wireless phones has broken their business model in many ways.
Skype was (and remains) easy to install; once a user made that initial Skype-to-Skype call it was hard to turn back. However, Skype did not rest on its technology laurels. Since its launch Skype has enhanced the voice quality of Skype-to-Skype calls with its SILK technology, developed services to make calls to/from the PSTN, expanded its multi-party conference call feature to allow up to 25 participants on a call and strengthened its ability to deal with network connection issues.
A Skype-to-Skype voice call is crystal clear and distortion-free to the point where there is no need for the “can you repeat that” request often required on legacy landline and, especially, cell phone calls. More on the page discussing HD Voice. When Skype launched Skype for iPhone 2.0 that supported calling over 3G wireless carriers in addition to WiFi, they also incorporated their SILK technology. Click below to experience a call between an iPhone in Ottawa, Canada and one near London, U.K.
In the fall of 2007, Skype introduced video calling with its High Quality Video service; late 2010 saw the introduction of 720p HD video capability, provided the user has sufficient upload bandwidth and a webcam that supports these higher resolution modes. Skype’s video calling is the realization of AT&T’s video calling concept introduced at the 1964 World’s Fair; today Skype video’s most popular consumer application is the “grandparent call”.
During 2010 Skype added an ability to provide Skype video calling to/from designated TV sets. As of June 2011, Skype for TV is supported by Internet-enabled models of Panasonic, Sony, Samsung and Vizio televisions. And in 2011 Panasonic and Sony introduced BluRay players that also support Skype video calling – from any TV set that works with these players. Click here for a review of Skype for TV at CES 2011, including a demonstration of Skype on a Panasonic BluRay player.
On New Year’s Eve for 2011, Skype upgraded Skype for iPhone to a version that supports video calling.
Skype’s Conversation Enrichment
One aspect that makes Skype stand out from other real time communications are the many features that support a basic conversation:
- Call escalation: escalate a call from chat to voice and even to video or desktop sharing if, in the context of the conversation, it’s appropriate and desired
- Add participants: if the call requires a third or additional parties to build out the conversation, simply click on the Add Contact button
- File transfer: send call participants related files securely
- Desktop sharing: show your desktop to highlight a point being made in the conversation. Demonstrations, confirmations and training are several applications of this feature. (Note: desktop sharing is only 1:1, not a hosted web conference session)
- Dial Pad allows entry of extensions or responses to IVR systems
- Call Quality Info provides real time information on the status of the hardware and Internet connection
Having provided this overview of Skype’s core features, now move onto the other Getting Started pages:
- Getting Started – The Hardware reviews the various platforms on which you can use Skype as well as headset, webcam and other accessories that can enhance the conversation.
- Getting Started – The Software provides guidance for downloading and installing the software, creating an account, finding contacts and making your first call.
Go to the Reference Guide accordion menu near the top of the sidebar to locate other information about Skype, especially when it comes to using Skype in your business.