A Primer for Skype’s Direction — Skype Hardware — If and When Available

When I first became involved with Skype Journal 18 months ago, I was impressed with some of the Skype phones that could be used as a PC peripheral while running Skype. Most notable were the VoIPvoice phones and hardware that let me emulate using a standard (speaker) phone while making Skype calls. In fact the VoIPvoice UConnect allowed me to use my 13-year old Nortel M9417 phone for both Skype and PSTN (landline) calls using the same software as used for their own VoIPvoice phones.

Included in the hardware category are several headsets, speakerphones, webcams and other hardware designed to work with Skype as a PC peripheral.

Over the past few months I have received for review, courtesy of the various hardware manufacturers, a wide range of Skype phones. While there are many models that can be used with Skype on the PC, the most interesting are the more recently released Skype "PC-Free" phones. Well engineered, easy to install and ergonomically similar to a standard 12-key keypad phone set, these phones are a hidden gem in Skype’s technology asset base.

They plug directly into a router or Ethernet switch en route to a broadband Internet connection; as a result there is no PC software to install and configure. Setup usually involves entering the time and date as well as providing your Skype sign-in information. The biggest installation problem I have encountered with the dual mode versions is having the Ethernet jack and RJ-11 phone jack on opposite walls of a room. One of the biggest benefits is that concurrent Windows operations – especially Outlook downloads –do not interfere with Skype calls.

To the average user, these phones appear and operate like regular phones. Pick up the receiver, dial a number and the phone call is completed. The underlying connection technology is essentially transparent to the end user. With the dual mode (Skype and PSTN) PC-Free phones you may have to also select whether you want the call to go out over SkypeOut or a landline.

Yet, these phones are loaded with features to take advantage of Skype: an Address Book listing all your Skype (and registered SkypeOut) Contacts; presence information, call history, voice mail capture and playback, call forwarding. You can Add Contacts, check the status of your various Skype accounts (Skype Credits, SkypeIn and Voice Mail), change ringtones, manage privacy settings and perform many other Skype functions from these phones. The two key missing features are lack of any text messaging capability and the absence of a webcam for video calls. You can perform firmware updates; I have encountered a few minor glitches but nothing that stops me from making phone calls.

But here is the issue: availability of these phones and the other Skype hardware for retail purchase is, at best, all but non-existent. In Europe In Store Solutions, partnering with Think Extra, has taken the entrepreneurial initiative and developed their own merchandising and distribution strategy for the European market. But in the U.S. you can may find some of the hardware in WalMart locations, the most reliable source is the Skype Store itself (restricted to U.S. residents only). The ultimate irony is that some of these phones are manufactured by a company with headquarters and engineering in Canada but none of them are available via any channel in Canada, even via the Skype Store. (Note that the actual manufacturing of virtually all Skype hardware occurs in southeast Asia).

Having been involved for several years in the hardware distribution channel, the formula is not that difficult:

  • Skype, as the real time conversations service provider and royalty recipient from the hardware vendors, not only needs to set the engineering standards for these phones, in particular via the firmware (and they do this quite well), but also needs to execute a significant "Skype Sanctioned" marketing campaign to generate awareness and "pull" (à la "Intel Inside" for PC’s).
  • At the same time hardware vendors, many of whom already have distributor relationships, need to incorporate standard distribution marketing practices, such as market development funds and appropriate promotional packaging, into their cost models as the hardware vendor is ultimately responsible for the "push".

These criteria apply even in these days of electronic purchasing via e-commerce sites.

With the proliferation of mobile phones, especially mobile smartphones, we are seeing new scenarios for having mobile take over the home phone market. However, there will continue to be a role for fixed landline phones in the home. Most homes have multiple phone sets — all attached to one number — not a configuration that is especially handy if one goes mobile where only one device is connected to a number. On the other hand WiFi-enabled mobile phones and call transfer functionality may change that general algorithm. (Not to overlook the call quality issues of mobile vs Skype also.) One of Skype’s challenges going forward will be to determine how they want to play in both the mobile and fixed phone market. (As long as I see large inventories of landline phones at Costco, Staples and Best Buy, we know the market for landline phones is not going away in the near future.) These Skype PC-Free phones certainly represent well Skype’s opportunity to participate in this market segment.

In summary, Skype PC-Free phones, provide the most transparent and seamless path for migrating consumers to Skype – especially the dual mode phones. Skype’s new CEO will have to tackle head-on the problems of hardware’s role in both the real time conversation space and hardware distribution. With appropriate marketing and distribution that can generate sales in the millions of units per year, Skype hardware can become one of Skype’s more significant revenue streams.

(Vendors of the Skype PC-Free phones include Topcom (whose WebT@lker 5000 is shown above), Philips, RTX Dualphone, GE, Linksys, Netgear and Ipevo.)

Tags: Skype, Skype Hardware, VoIPvoice, PC-Free Phones, Topcom, Philips, Dualphone, GE, Linksys, Netgear, Ipevo, In Store Solutions, Think Extra

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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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  1. In Store Solutions: Building Worldwide Distribution for Skype Hardware | Voice on the Web - August 12, 2009

    […] series, published at the time Skype had announced a search for a new President, I had stated in Skype Hardware – If and When Available: Having been involved for several years in the hardware distribution channel, the formula is not […]

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