Skype Remains “Me Different” While Innovation is Driving Change

3-skype.logoYesterday long time acquaintance Andy Abramson put up a post Skype on Three-Me Too, Me Also, No Longer Me Different where he states “Now 3 no longer has the same Skype service in the UK…” and concludes with “…. now Skype is back to being just a IM based calling service online with a few hooks to the PSTN”. I beg to differ.

Andy is talking about 3’s Skype service that was launched in late 2007 using a hybrid solution that allowed IM and call signalling data to be handled over the data channel while the actual voice call went over the carrier’s GSM voice channel. It provided a way to make free calls to Skype contacts worldwide while using SkypeOut for calls to the PSTN outside the home country. In fact I was on a 40 minute call with a 3 user on the INQ phone earlier today; however it’s lifetime as a service appears to be coming to an end.

3 Skypephone (white and blue) cut outSkype on 3 also was significant in building a customer base for 3 who was a fledgling 3G service trying to enter a U.K. market dominated by somewhat larger players. At the time all the reviews were positive; it was well received by a younger demographic keen to expand their social networking circles. Initially the service was offered on “brew”-based 3 Skypephones; later it also became available on the “brew”-based INQ phone with its social networking features. However, for infrastructure It did require “gateway” servers using iSkoot’s software that had developed this protocol. And, as pointed out in an iSkoot presentation at the initial eComm 2008 there were royalties paid to both Skype and iSkoot associated with the monthly subscriptions involved. From the carrier perspective, the economic key to providing this unlimited calling service was that Skype-to-Skype calls had no termination charges as they go direct to the end user contact without any requirement for termination by another carrier.

In the spring of 2010, Verizon launched its Skype mobile service using a similar protocol to much fanfare. Skype’s carrier-specific arrangement with Telus was very different with respect to the services offered, especially the Skype client and the associated Android phone.

But times are changing; the key for addressing these changes is how 3, working with Skype, can make a transition that keeps their customer base while offering Skype calling through alternative arrangements:

  • Brew-based phones have been outsmarted by smartphones from Apple, Android and RIM. I would imagine today’s demand for an INQ or 3 Skypephone has diminished to a level that does not encourage further manufacturing.
  • Skype has since launched full Skype clients on iPhone and Android phones, offering not only chat and voice but also video calling.
    • Not only do these clients  use the data channel of wireless carriers for voice and video but they also support Skype’s SILK codec for optimum voice quality.
  • Data plan rates have come down by orders of magnitude from charges four years ago; the launch of iPhone helped drive these down.
  • There is carrier and Skype overhead in running the iSkoot servers at 3.
  • I would imagine, partly based on some anecdotal information, that many of 3’s customers who had 3 Skypephone and INQ phones have migrated to other phones. While both iPhone and Android phones are market players in the U.K. that same youth demographic actually has been strongly attracted to BlackBerry and its BlackBerry Messenger feature.

The bottom line is that the entire mobile market has evolved and 3’s initial Skype calling service has been left in the dust. Skype says these services are still operating in U.K., Australia and Ireland, probably due to the current size of the user base yet they will go away in the near future.  However, at some point I would imagine 3 would have to be working on a strategy to phase out its initial Skype service and transition their customers to newer platforms.

As for “No Longer Me Different” it is too simplistic to say Skype only offers IM and voice services duplicated by others. From both Tony Bates’ post, Tony Bates Weighs in on Microsoft’s Acquisition of Skype, and the accompanying infographic, expect to see a heavy emphasis on Skype’s video calling where there has been no duplication that combines the available resolutions (VGA, HD), frame rates (30 fps, 22 fps) and minimum network upload speed requirements by any other service provider. Of course there is also the other strength of having over 170 million active users that remains a key differentiator.

While 3 has definitely demonstrated the demand for Skype services on mobile platforms, both the market players and underlying wireless carrier infrastructure have changed over the past four years. The questions that arise include:

  • How long will Verizon continue with its Skype mobile offering? We have already seen Verizon’s plans for offering Skype over its LTE network using Android phones where the focus was on video calling.
  • While Verizon’s service could be replaced with Skype for Android on its Android phones, what would happen to its BlackBerry customers who would not have a native Skype for BlackBerry client?
  • Can Skype address the battery drain issue on both Skype for iPhone and Skype for Android to provide users with the same user experience as Skype mobile in terms of recharging frequency?

It’s easy to want to position a perception that other players can be competitors of Skype; however, the real challenge for MicroSkype is how to build a business that justifies a $8.5B purchase price, not how to skirmish over services whose usefulness and viability has been overtaken by the evolution of the market participants and carrier infrastructure.

Full disclosure: the author has made the only 3 Skypephone call on the Rogers network back in early 2008. Ten minutes cost me about $100 as Rogers did not have an iSkoot server available.

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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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