A Primer for Skype’s Direction: Mobile Conversations

This is the fifth post in a series summarizing the current state of Skype’s ecosystem and providing a perspective on the assets in place for a new CEO to run with.

The intrigue of low cost mobile conversations in a user-friendly environment has generated significant interest and speculation amongst Skype followers. Device resource capacity, communications standards limitations and finding a role within carrier business models have all imposed restrictions on the adoption of Skype on mobile platforms. I probably see more queries about using Skype on a mobile platform than the combination of all other Skype issues. And, as with designing mobile websites, it’s not a simple case of what works on the landline web works on wireless mobile platforms.

A Brief History of Skype on mobile devices

May 2005 saw the initial speculation about Skype on a (Symbian) mobile platform; nine months later Stuart reported on the sighting of a prototype Skype for Symbian1 that provided text messaging and a "push to talk" application that has never seen the light of day. Over the past three years we have seen the evolution of Skype for Mobile on Windows Mobile platforms. Skype WiFi phones, available in the fall 2006, did not exactly take off due to both sparse wireless coverage and device resource limitations (not to mention costs). This past summer we learned about two Skype-enabled services providing both voice and chat for Blackberries and Nokia smartphones (IM+ for Skype and iSkoot); they actually worked more or less as promoted! And it sounds like next week we may actually see a Skype phone on the 3 services.

Wireless VoIP: a Primer

At VON Boston next week late Wednesday morning will see a session "Goiing Mobile with Skype – Beep, Beep". So it’s timely to review what we have learned to date, where the Skype on mobile platforms world is at and the critical questions for this session. First, what have we learned:

  • Wireless access: VoIP over wireless requires either WiFi or a 3G network to have the horsepower to provide the low latency2, appropriate bandwidth as well as data handling speeds required for high quality calls.
  • Dual mode devices that support WiFi and/or 3G have only recently become available. Nokia’s E61, N80 and N95 along with the recently introduced Blackberry 8320 Curve and 8820 are examples.
  • There exists an installed base of 3.5 billion conventional phone devices and handsets
  • There are currently two applications that support true VoIP calling on mobile platforms:

    • Truphone is fully integrated into various N-series devices such that VoIP calls can be made from WiFi zones or over a 3G network. But Truphone is largely a voice only service.
    • Skype for Mobile works on Windows Mobile 5 & 6 platforms but again requires WiFi or 3G.
    • Both these applications are fully integrated in that they access the native address book and follow the legacy process for making phone calls: look up a name, select a number, push the Call button and the called party’s phone rings.
  • The 3 Skypephone introduced Monday, October 29 fundamentally changes nothing with respect to the above statements.

Skype’s User Issues

The key user issues involving Skype access on mobile devices include:

  • Ease of installation, if any, and provisioning
  • Call initiation procedure: get number, direct call or callback
  • Finding the number:

    • Access to device’s native address book
    • Access to a users’ Skype Contact list
    • Voice recognition
  • Battery life
  • Text input: T9 or QWERTY keyboard
  • Availability of Skype text chat
  • Carrier voice and data plans
  • Notification and interruption control

    • especially with text messages
  • Transparent geographical wireless coverage

Carrier Issues: Do they even want to go the VoIP route? Especially if they use GSM standards!

  • VoIP carrier adoption basically requires an unlimited data plan to have maximum geographical coverage but do the carriers have the capacity to handle all the data that would result? A 60 minute VoIP call can result in 8 to 15 MB of data being exchanged.
  • UMA/GAN is a recently launched standard that provides not only the ability to handle voice over WiFi using more conventional wireless protocols but also seamless transition as one traverses from a WiFi to GSM or GSM to WiFi zone.

    • Implementation requires carrier support and UMA-enabled devices, such as the Blackberry 8320 Curve and 8820.
    • Currently available on T-Mobile Hotspot @ Home, Cincinnati Bell Home Run in the U.S. and Orange throughout Europe amongst others.
    • UMA/GAN only operates on GSM networks and involves SIP for establishing a connection over the Internet.

So what are the incentives for carriers to even consider VoIP, given that, for GSM carriers, their underlying wireless service has the technology to transition seamlessly across protocol zone boundaries:

  • Carriers can offer customers a fully supported, but lower cost, seamless service with maximum geographical coverage
  • Provides a standard where business and consumer customers can transparently transition between networks
  • Reduces carrier network congestion as well as cell tower and network build-out costs if customers install WiFi routers at home and/or business office (usually at customer’s expense)
  • Carriers can go more aggressively after landline phone replacement business,

    • especially in the residential market
    • minimum on-site service required at the home

      • assist with installing WiFi access point
  • Some carriers are also supporting WiFi Hotspots: T-Mobile, Canadian Hotspot network (and according to my network of contacts, extensively in Europe such as The Cloud in London)
  • Fixed fee subscription for UMA/GAN allows unlimited calling from hotels, airports, food service businesses, etc. while traveling (T-Mobile – $19.95 per month)
  • UMA/GAN inherently incorporates E911 support.

Accessing Skype on Mobile Devices

What are the current implementations of Skype and VoIP mobile on mobile devices?

  • Skype for Mobile (Windows Mobile 6 devices): voice and IM
  • Truphone (several Nokia E- and N-series devices): voice, SMS and presence
  • IM+ for Skype (Blackberry 8xxx, Nokia, iPhone, iTouch): voice and IM
  • iSkoot (Blackberry, Nokia, 3 Skypephone and others): voice and IM
  • Mobivox: (Any phone; no device download, talk to VoxGirl): voice
  • MyToGo (from any predesignated mobile phone via a Skype-enabled PC; no phone download): voice

Issues:

  • Carrier voice access charges: all these offerings require the carrier to provide access to the voice network whether direct call or callback; minutes may be counted against your plan or it’s pay-as-you-go.
  • Carrier data plan charges:

    • Skype for Mobile and Truphone require 3G data plan, if not in a WiFi zone, and will invoke any data plan charges when using their VoIP for voice.
    • IM+ for Skype, and; iSkoot use the data plan for setting up calls, text messaging and to maintain presence information but revert to the underlying voice service for the actual voice calls.
    • Mobivox and MyToGo do not require data plan access
  • WiFi capability will reduce or eliminate these charges when in a WiFi zone, even for voice if on a UMA-enabled service. (My first billing using the 8820 has seen about a 50% drop in my GPRS/EDGE data plan usage yet I use the data features much more liberally, especially when in my home office.)
  • Battery life: using WiFi will draw down the battery more quickly, Nokia has a utility which helps to minimize WiFi scanning to only when absolutely necessary, yet my N95 must be recharged nightly. Currently iSkoot will drain my Blackberry 8820 (which has 40% more battery capacity than the 8700 series) within a day; IM+ for Skype runs for two to three days before draining the battery. (The GPS on the N95 and 8820 may also be a factor in battery life.)

Criteria for evaluating mobile Skype services

As we listen to the presenters at Wednesday’s session the key criteria for Skype on Mobile include:

  • How voice calls are implemented
  • Skype chat availability and operation
  • Access to contacts (Native device address book and/or Skype contacts)

    • Maximum number of contacts supported
  • Wireless access support required: voice, voice and data; 2G/GPRS/EDGE, 3G and/or WiFi
  • Range of services: voice, text chat, conference calling, support for Skype calling plans, "call back" location support
  • Status and mood message handling
  • Role for mobile mashups involving, say, Skype and mobile Google Maps

As Thomas Howe mentioned in our recent interview "What do people always have with them?". Mobile-enabled conversations on Skype will be playing a key role in Skype’s evolution going forward. The one certainty is that Skype’s approach will probably comprise multiple services, each serving a particular market niche, based on not only the mobile device, but also ease-of-use and the conversation modes desired.

I look forward to reporting from Boston on this session (and the impact of Skype’s 3 announcement Monday on the direction of this session).

1 Note that Nokia is the largest vendor of Symbian phones including their E-series and N-series.
2 2G/GPRS/EDGE networks have an inherent latency of 8 seconds for VoIP calls. Yes, 8 seconds!

Other posts in this series:

Tags: Skype, mobile Skype, Wireless Skype, Skype for Mobile, Symbian, Nokia, Blackberry, , 8820, VON Boston, IM+ for Skype, iSkoot, Truphone, N95, N80, N-series, E-series, 3G, WiFi VoIP, , UMA, UMA/GAN, T-Mobile, Orange, Canadian Hotspot Network, Mobivox, MyToGo, Thomas Howe, Going Mobile with Skype

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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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