Fall VON 2006 Special – Time to Move Beyond Skype WiFi Phones

This is the second post in a series reviewing wireless devices in the emerging Personal Handheld Assistant space; the ultimate aim is to identify roles that Skype can play in this market of converged functionality devices. This is a special post in the series that was triggered by a VON Fall 2006 session. Links to other posts in this series are available at the end of this post.

Monday afternoon I attended the first Fall VON plenary session: IM: The State of Presence featuring a panel of executives and managers from the GYMAS-five representing over 90% of the IM usage worldwide. Carl Ford ran his usual vibrant Q&A format, offering each member of the panel an opportunity to provide commentary on several topics surrounding IM and where it is going. It was a very informative and stimulating discussion overall.

One major direction for IM is the extension of IM’s access and reach by its incorporation into wireless devices. We heard about many of the issues that challenge the ability to provide seamless wireless IM clients, including login barriers, coverage and the relatively high cost of data services.

But the session confirmed a belief I had started to hold about a month ago during my evaluation of several wireless platforms. In particular, my evaluation of one Skype WiFi phone demonstrated to me the futility of providing such a device:

  • The battery life was about eight to twelve hours in standby mode
  • It could not handle DTMF tones
  • The basic clock would arbitrarily drop a couple of hours
  • Skype was the only application that runs on the device
  • While the Skype client provides Skype names and the Contacts’ other phone numbers (if available via the Contact’s registration), there is no address, email or other information such as provided by synchronization with Outlook.
  • They would only work in open access WiFi zones; they would not work in WiFi hotspots requiring a browser-based logon.
  • They were purely engineering toys that demonstrated one could make the concept work but they badly needed an experienced wireless phone product manager to get the feature set right.
  • In a market of multi-function devices in a similar price range, a Skype-dedicated device could not be price justified.

I came away with the feeling that, while they perform more or less as advertised, Skype WiFi phones are nothing more than a prototype engineering demonstration of Skype on a wireless platform. Certainly they would have a very limited market — maybe in enterprises that wanted to provide “walled garden” communications amongst geographically disbursed nomadic employees. But they certainly are not a wireless phone that will gain broad consumer acceptance and market share of any significance.

Combining this experience with my experience with Nokia N-series phones, the Blackberry and Skype for Mobile on the Dell Axim I have to recommend that Skype drop the concept of a dedicated Skype WiFi phone and focus their efforts on getting Skype incorporated into those other wireless platforms. (It is for this reason that I did not bother to mention which brand of Skype WiFi phone I evaluated; it’s the entire product concept that is a problem.)

There was also a consensus in this session that IM’s presence and text chat are primary to these services whereas voice is one of the secondary services, along with video, file transfer, etc. On those wireless devices where processor and/or memory limitation inhibit the ability to run Skype’s VoIP, then the Skype IM client should seamlessly default to the underlying (GSM, evDO, etc.) wireless phone service for the voice component. In fact, this should also be an option for those services where running VoIP as a data service remains cost prohibitive.

A final point: the primary sales channel for wireless phones is the wireless carriers themselves. As one who has observed the Blackberry’s growth closely over the past few years, establishing the carrier relationships is a long, strenuous road. Not to mention that carriers are seeking products that will sell well. Skype needs to rely on the wireless device as a platform for incorporation of Skype functionality to achieve its mobile goals.

It’s time to move beyond Skype WiFi phones; let’s hope we soon start to see Nokia (Symbian), Research in Motion (Java) and Windows Mobile device vendors, along with other wireless platform vendors, doing Skype Partner deals.

Other posts in this series:

  1. Wireless Telephones and Personal Assistants – What Does One Look For?

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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. Skype Without a Personal Computer | Voice on the Web - April 4, 2009

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