A Primer for Skype’s Direction: Enabling Real Time Conversations

This is the second in a series summarizing the current state of Skype’s ecosystem and providing a perspective on the assets in place for a new CEO to run with.

In the first post I provided a high level backgrounder on Skype’s five primary assets and the three business groupings within the Skype ecosystem. Today I want to talk about Skype’s core real time conversation infrastructure enabling:

  • voice (traditional voice calls, conference calls)
  • text messaging (chat, SMS)

    • conversation archiving
  • presence
  • video
  • directory services
  • group chat
  • calling services:

    • speed dial
    • voice mail
    • call forwarding
    • call transfer
  • file transfer

The first point to be made about Skype is that it is NOT a VoIP service but rather a comprehensive enabler of real time conversations. No other player in the softphone or landline space offers such a broad range of services that allows the user to enhance the conversation by, say, capturing a screen segment and using Snag-It to send to a Skype contact, adding up to 8 more participants to an initial voice call as necessary during the call, transferring the call to up to five locations to increase the possibility of getting to the desired person, or dragging an Outlook Contact to the Skype client to provide full contact information.. Nobody provides up to eight ways to perform a file transfer during a call.

Some highlights of these services:

Voice: free calls to other Skype users (Skype calls); low cost calls to most landline phones worldwide and mobile phones in North America (SkypeOut calls); calls to mobile phones outside North America (also SkypeOut but those European and Asian mobile operators have a "caller pays" policy). Price plans such that long distance calling within a region for a year has the same cost as one or two months services on traditional landline services. And conference in additional participants at will or set up conference calls for up with up to nine additional participants who can be Skype Contacts and/or at SkypeOut phone numbers.

You can also set up as many as ten SkypeIn numbers in twenty countries; have phone numbers in, say, the U.S. and a European country that both come to your single Skype account. Become "local" to your remote family members or business contacts.

Test Messaging: For me text Chat is the number one feature I use with Skype (and appears to be number one with many of my Skype Contacts).

  • Get answers to ad hoc questions quickly
  • Politely avoid the niceties of "how are you?", "how’s the weather"
  • Use Chat for virutalizing worldwide those informal conversations we all have around the house, office or community center.
  • Emoticons and font selection bring emotion into the text conversation.
  • Quickly add multiple parties into the chat as relevant.
  • Recall previous chat sessions to look up URL’s or mission critical information exchanged in the past.

Dan York has so many text chats running that he overloads a hotel’s Internet access! And a very useful feature introduced with Skype 3.5: you can now edit or remove your most recent chat entry to correct typos or, say, withdraw text inadvertently sent to the wrong active chat session on your desktop.

Presence: on Skype is a blessing and a curse. If there is one consistency about Skype’s presence, it has to be the scaling issues associated with keeping presence current across as many as 10 million users online and 10’s of millions in various "non-available" statuses (stati?). Several third party attempts to address presence in the early days of Skype have been abandoned for two reasons: (i) it’s tough to scale and (ii) it’s really part of Skype’s core functionality.

So we are relying on Skype to build in the sophistication to address issues such as multiple logins (at least with Skype 3.2 and later, "latest login wins", provided this feature has migrated across all platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux, Skype phones and the various mobile devices supported in multiple ways) and simply time to propagate a status change across the entire Skype ecosystem.

And the direction of Skype’s presence will be a key differentiator for Skype if they get it right. Should they get so sophisticated as to include "New Presence" and its requirements for real time relevance? Is there a need for, and willingness to, develop universal standards for presence? Is there a need to consider enhancements for presence? To quote Alec Saunders on these issues:

Perhaps the two biggest barriers to New Presence today are:

  1. the simple confusion around protocol standards. Ironically, this ought to be the simplest piece to solve. Standards are simply codified ways to describe information. The tussle between SIP / SIMPLE, and XMPP must be resolved before New Presence can effectively move forward. Much of the rest of the technology required already exists.
  2. the will of the carriers and portal players, who still cling to the wilful delusion that they can capture every aspect of the users communication world. In reality, the vast majority of us lead heterogeneous lives, and no service provider will ever change that.

Video: Video is still trying to earn its place in our real time conversations. Skype’s current video provides excellent quality; however, one has to fundamentally deal with the issue of a user not wanting to be seen for a variety of privacy, self-esteem and social etiquette reasons. For small businesses, multi-party video could certainly be a future benefit, whether the service comes from a third party Developer Partner or within Skype. Fundamentally, if you want to hold a one-to-one video conversation and have an appropriate webcam, you can have one. (Although the grapevine tells me there are issues with keeping webcam support current but then Logitech recently released a driver that corrupts my Windows, so real time video conversation still needs maturing of the infrastructure also.)

A couple of recent video applications I have encountered: Amber MacArthur uses Skype video on her Mac to produce some of her television interviews for CityTV in Toronto. And Skype video was recently used for a "free Tibet" protest related to getting visibility during leadup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Group Chat: this is one of the most underutilized and underpromoted aspects of Skype. For the past five months, since Group Chat’s introduction, I have been following a couple of Group Chats related to Skype activities (Skype 3.x discussion group and Skype Mashup discussion board). Group Chats can become the informal virtual water fountain around a special interest topic; provided the "Hosts" keep the discussion more or less on topic (and they can dismiss/ban non-obliging participants). Group Chats. while limited to 100 participants, probably have more potential to contribute to ad hoc social networking than any other aspect of Skype. Any Skype user can start a group chat; buttons and tools are available to promote a group chat via websites, emails and individual chat sessions.

Directory Services: Skype provides access to a "master" directory within the Skype cloud that allows you to search for contacts by e-mail address or name. Once a name is found you have the option to add it to your Skype Contacts. However, there are some privacy guidelines:

  • The other party can search by name or email address but you must initiate a search and have the query information from a Skype-independent source.
  • Skype never releases email address information, even in any form of Skype Profiles. .
  • Only when you have agreed to share your contact information can the other party actually view your entire Skype Profile with (optional) phone number information.
  • For all the obvious anti-spam reasons, email addresses are not provided in Skype profiles; while a Skype user needs to include an email address to register with Skype, it is not provided in users’ Skype Profiles.

Fundamentally the Skype Contact client serves as your own personal address book, along with its associated infrastructure; it currently provides:

  • Access to all your "accepted" Skype Contacts for initiating real time voice, chat and video conversations as well as leaving voicemails, executing file transfer and SMS messaging
  • Home, Office and Mobile phone number information for SkypeOut calls. Note, that with version 3.5, this is only available to those Skype Contacts whom you have allowed to have your "Contact Details".
  • Speed Dial with up to 99 speed dial numbers (see MyToGo for an innovative use of Speed Dial and SkypeIn to extend your Skype reach to your home, office and/or mobile phones)
  • You can build your own "Do Not Call" list using the "Block this User" feature
  • Grouping according to Groups that you as a user establish.

Skype is currently working on a Unified Directory web service from which not only are you able to locate Skype users but also search for SkypeFind businesses, Skype Prime services as well as Group Chats and Skypecaasts by topic.

As an aside, also note that now Skype detects phone numbers within websites and makes them clickable to call via SkypeOut in a two click process (the second acknowledging you will be using a chargeable service). Very handy; especially when using traditional telco directories such as Canada 411. And no "callback" involved! (The former Skype Web Toolbar is now embedded into Skype 3.5 installations.)

Calling services: Skype provides facility for the common calling services such as a basic voice mail (with the ability to leave voice mails without an initiating call), call transfer to other Skype users (and with SkypePro to any SkypeOut phone number), call forwarding concurrently to multiple destinations (other Skype accounts, SkypeOut phone numbers). Call waiting is inherent to Skype as well as the ability to bring others into a conversation (whether a Skype User or a SkypeOut contact).

File Transfer: personally I find this is one service which I heavily use in the course of discussions with Skype Partners while both learning about their products and also providing user feedback. As mentioned earlier there are eight ways to do File Transfer with Skype; integration with utilities such as Snag-It make it very handy to, say, send screen shots with a minimum number of clicks. Transferred files are monitored by any anti-virus software on your local PC; also the file transfer itself is encrypted for additional security.

Two additional Skype toolbars: Skype Email Toolbar and Skype Office Toolbar integrate Skype with your MS Outlook and MS Office activities respectively.

Other considerations: Skype works across Windows, Mac and Linux platforms; with some limitations it also works on PC-Free cordless phones (presence but no text chat) and Windows Mobile devices (with WiFi or 3G wireless services); Skype can be accessed via third party applications on most mobile devices. Skype sends no monthly bills; paid services are all prepaid. Finally while there are over 220 million registered Skype account, there are probably 20 to 30 million regular Skype users with as many as 9.7 million users online around 1600 GMT when both Europe and North America are doing business.

And finally, the one major asset that has allowed 220 million to sign up for Skype and close to 10 million to be using it during the business day: Ease-of-use. Skype Vice-President for Communications Services, Stefan Oberg, talked about this subject at VON Canada eighteen months ago and it remains an overriding guideline in the development of the product. If anything the introduction of new functionality such as video in chat and SkypeFind have occurred around the basic real time conversation tools. It’s remains a simple right click on a contact name to start any conversation mode. The newer functionality is available to those who want to explore them but not required to carry on conversations.

When Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, or others start providing this range of real time conversation support, I’ll start looking at them again. As for other VoIP services, tell me how they are going to build a Directory with over 200 million accounts. SightSpeed provides an excellent video messaging and multi-party video conference capability but, in practice, it addresses the asynchronous communications space. In the meantime Skype has become my primary communications tool, meeting many more needs than I could have anticipated prior to Skype’s availability.

It’s not simply a matter of talking to my personal and business acquaintances; it’s a matter of enhancing conversations to provide backup, accuracy (of, say, URL’s, contact information, etc.) and support; it’s a matter of having ongoing informal text chat conversations; of being able to recall important information from previous conversations. of being able to transfer a critical document on demand, and, most importantly, of making both my personal and business communications both more productive and more cost effective.

And Skype has come along way towards Stefan’s goal for Skype stated at VON Canada eighteen months ago: "Better than a phone…" And Alec Saunders says, "Stop wringing your hands. Skype is a huge success."

To follow in this series:

Skype Hardware: the latent Skype opportunity for providing a simple migration path from PSTN to Skype

Skype Developer Partners: a major Skype user recruitment and revenue generation opportunity

Tags: Skype, SkypeOut, SkypeIn, SkypePro, Skype File Transfer, Instant Messaging, Skype Video, Presence

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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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