Skype and Third Party Access: Getting Back to Basics

“Fring is not a communications platform, but only a toy or at best a testbed for shiny objects.”

Comment by Hudson Barton on Andy Abramson’s post: Fring Fumbles on Cross Platform Video Chat

skype_logo11111_thumb1[1]In observing the evolution of Skype and third party access to it over the past few years I have often wondered how far Skype would go in allowing third party services to deploy Skype as one communications mode in a multi-service communications offering. Fring and Truphone are two examples. Usually these offerings figure out a way to put up a temporary Skype client on a “gateway” server and then build their own interface to the Skype client on that gateway.

There are issues of scalability, service quality (especially voice and video quality) and the overall user calling experience that could potentially compromise the user’s experience in taking advantage of the resulting Skype connection. It’s one thing to show that technically one can make the relevant voice and video connections but the challenges rise to a significantly higher level when taking into account the overall user experience.

Personally I look for services that allow me to easily find and select a contact, select the calling destination (Skype, Home, Mobile, Office, for example) and then click on either a soft button or the hardware green button and make the connection within a reasonable time (say, less than 30 seconds). I find the multi-service communications offerings to be a bit overbearing and almost too overwhelming for a non-technical business and consumer user.

Today there’s lots of coverage about Fring and its use of Skype (or now lack thereof); Dan York has provided an excellent summary of the various viewpoints in his post: Skype vs. Fring: Is Fring not telling the whole truth?. Very significant is the speed with which Skype’s Vice-President, Legal responded to get their side of the story out; their legal personnel usually have stayed out of the public discussion on any of Skype’s market-related issues.

But getting back to basics, there are three considerations:

Skype is Fundamentally Communications Software: we have heard this many times from Skype CEO Josh Silverman; he repeated and emphasized this during our CES conversation last January. As a result they own the intellectual property rights to their software. But they have been successful largely because they make much of their intellectual property available free – they can afford to do this since the capital overhead for Skype-to-Skype calling is so low. We as users provide the key piece by using Skype on our PC’s or other Skype-embedded hardware devices. On the other hand they need the intellectual property protection not only to defend potential revenues but just as importantly to defend their brand.

Best examples of this include:

  • Skype video calling – here’s the 1964 AT&T World Fair concept now going out thirty-five years later with no charge for one-to-one video calling and being used on ~35% of Skype calls.
  • Skype has also made their SILK codec available royalty-free provided the licensee meets performance criteria. As demonstrated with Skype for iPhone over 3G, SILK has the potential to revolutionize voice quality on mobile calling (and I’ll pay one or two dollars per month just to have the superior voice quality after many years of mobile phone calls with somewhat challenging audio quality ). Blabbelon provides an excellent example of incorporating SILK.
  • Skype mobile on Verizon: here is a software development and licensing agreement that generates sustainable revenue streams for both parties while delivering a significant benefit, namely free calling to Skype contacts worldwide, to Verizon customers when calling from the U.S.
  • With the success of Skype as a commercial TV production platform, Skype has developed special licensing terms for users of this application.

The bottom line is that all these, including making basic Skype-to-Skype calls using the standard Skype clients, involve some form of license agreement that is being adhered to.

Skype is Ultimately About The User Experience: Skype’s brand focuses well beyond the enabling technology to incorporate the entire user experience. It was ease of installation and use that allowed Skype to be adopted so readily such that over 600 million user accounts have been created with around 100 million active users. Skype’s VP for Mobile, Russ Shaw, re-emphasized this during our conversation at CES. We witness this in the recent launches of Skype mobile on Verizon and Skype for iPhone over 3G. While I can only rely on third party reporting about the former (not being in the U.S.) which has largely been positive, for the latter I simply installed the software, looked up a contact, clicked on the Call button and made this excellent quality call to the U.K. using Skype for iPhone over 3G. Woops, did I mention the quality of the call again? Overall both applications set a higher standard for the user experience.

Skype is Opening Up to Developers: Yes, there has been a rough ride for developers over the past four years. PamConsult, Netralia, InnerPass and OnState have persisted with their offerings and have demonstrated the potential for Skype and third party applications. But the recent launch of SkypeKit beta – in a phased program to ensure control over quality and service level issues as the program evolves – opens up significant opportunities for third party developers. Suffice it to say that I know we can expect not only significant software partner offerings but also some innovative hardware offerings based on SkypeKit. Once again, however, there are licensing guidelines to ensure the integrity of Skype’s brand.

But the bottom line is this: sure Skype reserves the right to generate revenues where they see a significant value-add market opportunity but even with their free offerings they want and need to preserve their brand image. It would appear from Skype’s legal executive’s comments that they have been trying to work out a way to interact with Fring without success; Fring has certainly been around for over three years in one form or another, including attending Skype-sponsored events. As Andy Abramson says:

As we all know there are three sides to every story, but given Fring took the shot first, an old rule of thumb in a legal battle is get the word out first. And Fring did. Now Skype, whose legal minds are based on the West Coast, as well as their platform team and video folks for the most part have gotten in and replied.

We now are starting to get a better handle on how Skype will establish the playing field for third party applications, hardware and services. The evolution of the Fring relationship (or lack thereof) will provide a concrete example of how far Skype will go in allowing third party affiliations.

Full disclosure: yes, I tried Fring several times in the past (when it had Skype access). Simply put, I never found a way to use it comfortably and abandoned it. I have used iSkoot successfully in the past; however, they no longer support current BlackBerry platforms. But all this flurry does generate the background for a future post on what I would look for in a mobile smartphone calling experience.

Re Truphone: I mentioned Truphone at the beginning of this post as another example of a third party service that offers Skype as one communication mode. I’ll have more to say on my Truphone experiences – both favorable and unfavorable in a separate post. At least I find it a reliable backup when I have no other choice for calling.

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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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