Skype on Mobile: Status Report – October 2006

Initiated when Andy invited me to participate in the Nokia blogger program back in June, I have now had the opportunity to work with several mobile platforms and, over time, made several attempts to work with programs that access Skype from the mobile phone. I’ve also been following the Skype perspective on mobile here, here and here where expectations are set for processor power (minimum 400 MHz on Skype for Mobile), wireless access requirements (WiFi and/or 3G) and other operational limitations on a mobile platform.

As a guideline for user simplicity, I look for an experience where I can (i) easily “ping” a contact and enter text for a chat session and (ii) simply access a (Skype) Contact or dial a number to make a voice call – an experience that has a minimal installation and learning curve for the user public; an experience that will readily gain broad market acceptance. For the record the platforms I have worked with include:

Device
IM Client
OS/Keyboard
Wireless
Dell Axim X50v Skype for Mobile WinMobile/
MS PocketPC Stylus
WiFi
Nokia N70* Quick IM,
SoonR, EQO
Symbian S60/T9 GPRS, 3G
Nokia N91* EQO Symbian S60/T9 GPRS, 3G, WiFi
Blackberry 8700* WebMessenger Java/
Blkbry QWERTY
GPRS/EDGE
SMC Skype WiFi None Linux/
T9? (no DTMF)
WiFi
Sony Mylo Skype for Sony Mylo Linux/
Mylo QWERTY
WiFi

* also accepts SMS messages

At the moment the best platform on which to experience Skype on a mobile device is the Sony Mylo with its embedded Skype client. It has both the standard Skype IM and Voice functionality (as well as supporting file transfer). It does not require any special setup other than to use the embedded Opera browser to log onto fee-based WiFi Hotspot services. Of course its other limitation is the availability of WiFi connectivity although Jon Arnold is already proclaiming 2007 as the Year of WiFi. The Mylo does present the most authentic and most complete Skype user experience. Skype-to-Skype calls are straight forward. Calling any PSTN number worldwide, provided you have SkypeOut access to the dialed number, is a simple matter of going to the Skype Dial menu, entering the PSTN number (with +Country Code) and clicking. Finally, as noted by both myself and others, the Mylo has superior voice quality due to its embedded VeriCall voice engine. One minor shortcoming is the lack of Outlook Contact synchronization; but this is not necessary given the overall intended Mylo experience as a personal communicator and not primarily a wireless phone.

A close second for a true Skype experience would be the Dell Axim X50v; however, its speaker/mic configuration falls short of a real phone experience. The more recent Windows Mobile 5 Smartphones, with QWERTY keyboards, are limited to having the full Skype experience when accessing 3G networks. In cases where they also have WiFi support (and access) – such as the forthcoming HP 6900 shown on the right, the experience has the potential to approach that of the Mylo. With Skype for Mobile all your Windows Mobile Contacts can be easily called via SkypeOut if they don’t have a Skype account. Both Windows Mobile devices and the Sony Mylo can execute Skype activities independently of a PC hosting Skype. A major issue not to be overlooked: can a Skype call, using a 3G data plan, be made at a lower cost than simply making a call via the underlying mobile phone carrier’s service?

Using the Nokia N-series phones – which has the best “traditional” phone interface, I have found, using QuickIM, the limitation for text chat to be the T9 keyboard. For some characters it is necessary to push a key several times to get a desired character. SMS messages, with their 160 character limitation, provide a handle on the maximum size of text messages that would also be suitable for Instant Message chat sessions with such a keyboard. On the other hand the N91 with WiFi support provides low cost or free access to the Internet when WiFi is available. Nokia’s E-series phones include a QWERTY keyboard; however, they are not a participant in the Nokia blogger program. The N-series phones do have full Outlook synchronization.

At the other end of the spectrum are my experiences with EQO and SoonR (via the Nokia N-series phones) where it is necessary to download clients to the PC (and with EQO to the mobile device), leave Skype running on a “host” PC and then make a Skype call in a callback algorithm where there is a phone call back to the mobile device while also calling the remote party (and using SkypeOut credits in the process). Establishing a call using SoonR took an unacceptable three to five minutes. EQO does have a Skype IM capability but again it runs into the T9 keyboard limitations discussed above. In trying to make a Skype call with EQO, a diversity of problems occurred including the first “crash” I have had with a Symbian device. Suffice it to say I was not able to complete a call via EQO from my (supported) mobile device to the called party. These mobile bridge services are simply too complex experiences for main street usage; at best they amount to technology demonstrations without an end user product management strategy.

Web Messenger is the one service currently available to handle Skype on a Blackberry; however, it is again a bridge service that requires a “host” PC connection. In addition it requires alteration of the standard Skype setup on the host PC and has the potential to cause issues with selecting sound devices.

With no IM capability other than delivering presence information, the Skype WiFi phones are effectively excluded from any discussion of a full Skype experience.

I recently interviewed James Wanless of the forthcoming T@lkster service whose key feature is its aggregation of IM services as a means to enable voice conversations. From a web browser in a mobile device you can make calls initially to contacts on MSN Messenger, GTalk and Gizmo Project; they hope to add Skype once the service has launched later this year with the initial three services. Ken Camp best describes T@lkster in his “second look” revised assessment reprise. I can see where T@lkster could be a complement to Skype on a mobile device.

Skype France Managing Director JéromeArchambeaud recently revealed in a French videocast panel discussion that Skype and Nokia will introduce a WiFi-enabled GSM phone before year end. (Skype Journal first reported on a prototype Skype for Symbian phone last February.) To quote a translation of Jérome’s comments:

“We work with big brands like Netgear, Phillips and Sony. We have around 100 partners and around 250 products around the world, of which around 70 are sold in France. These partners are really important quite simply because with the Skype program running on the PC, on the phone and soon through Wifi-enabled GSM phones (notably with Nokia who we will be making a big launch with towards the end of the year), we have to really make the Skype ecosystem come to life and forge partnerships where we can.”

With emerging platforms such as this, which is effectively an evolution from the legacy Skype client experience and traditional wireless phones to which users can readily adapt, one has to wonder what the sustainable future is for more complex “mobile bridge” services such as EQO and SoonR. The most challenging technical question here is which Nokia platforms have a processor powerful enough to handle both voice and IM.

WiFi access – optionally with 3G, QWERTY keyboards, minimal downloads, adequate processor power, Outlook Contact synchronization and total independence from hosting PC’s combine to provide the basics for a mobile device capable of the full Skype experience while gaining widespread and sustainable market acceptance. Differentiation will come through accompanying platform features such as Blackberry’s push email, the Nokia video applications (camera and video calling) and availability of unique Windows Mobile applications such as SlingBox Mobile. The next few months promise to be interesting times with the evolution of Skype Mobile platforms.

P.S. Once you have decided on a Skype Mobile platform, you can always use this as your Bluetooth-enabled speaker/mic configuration It would actually solve the problem alluded to above for my Dell Axim. And the price is right!.

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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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