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May 04, 2005

As the Phone World Turns Part 7 – Skype Features

Because Skype started as a service for computer-to-computer voice calls, its feature set takes advantage of the fact that users have keypads under their fingers and full-size screens in front of them.  Skype’s traditional telephony features are generally weak; but it is distinguished by features that can’t be offered on a legacy landline handset.  Most Skype features CAN and presumably will be implemented on PDAs and smart mobile phones.

Making calls requires a computer or other Skype-equipped device.  Calling any of the “local” community of 35 million registered Skype users is free and calling anyone else is reasonably priced.  Quality is excellent even on marginal broadband connections Skype-to-Skype.  Skype claims to transmit a greater range of frequencies than legacy phones but I can’t vouch for that because I’m tone deaf.   SkypeOut quality to the rest of the world is only OK.  Unaccountably, touchtone simulation (DTMF) sucks so retrieving voice mail and navigating menus can be impossible.

Receiving calls until very recently was restricted to  calls from other Skype users. Now a user can purchase SkypeIn numbers in nine countries and be called locally anywhere he or she has a number.  Each number cost €10 for three months or €30 for a year regardless of the number of calls received on it.  Skype Voice Mail, which, like SkypeIn, is in “Paid Beta”, is included with SkypeIn.  Skype keeps running out of numbers on a country by country basis (Norway is currently out of stock) which may indicate high demand.  You CANNOT port an existing number to Skype and may or may not be able to port a SkypeIn number to a nonSkype service.  Skype says caller ID only works with some providers of local numbers and doesn’t make clear which anywhere that I can find.  Of course, you always know who is calling if the call is from another Skype subscriber.

Voice mail is now in Beta and available.  It is a weak implementation compared to Vonage and other VoIP providers.  Voice mails are stored on the user’s computer once they have been listened to so this is not very helpful when going to Internet cafes or switching computers.  Voice mail is not available as email or .WAV files.  Looks like a feature that was rushed as a necessary adjunct to SkypeIn.  If purchased separately from SkypeIn, Skype Voice Mail costs €5 for three months or €15 for a year.

Conference calling is a strength.  A Skype user can initiate a call which includes up to four other Skype or nonSkype users.  Connections to the Skype users cost nothing and connections to the nonSkype users are charged at SkypeOut rates.  Good way to reduce the cost of small international conference calls.  Note that there is not a call-in number, however; the call is set up with onscreen invitations to Skype users and outbound calls to nonSkype users.

Buddy lists aka presence management aka online status is a feature inherited from the online chat world.  You can put anyone you want on your contact list.  At its simplest, this is just a directory.  However, people who put you on their contact list AND whom you choose to authorize can see your online status.  They know when you’re online, offline, away from your computer, not available, etc.  More information than I choose to give out but a useful feature to many people in the chat world so probably in telephony as well.  Recently, Skype started keeping the buddy lists on their central server rather than on the users PCs; that’s a customer-friendly move for those who go from computer to computer and is a rare instance of Skype absorbing an incremental expense for a free service.

Call blocking is robust.  You can elect to receive calls only from people on your contact list; only from authorized people on your contact list, or you can block specific Skype users or PSTN phone numbers (assuming that you get Caller ID which you may not) from calling you.

Text chat is supported by Skype so you can text message other Skype users in addition to calling them or talking to them.  Logs of chats are kept on your computer.  The text chat world is closed so you cannot reach users of other services with text messages.  The same directory is used for text chat as for phone calling.  There is no charge for text chat.

Central directory can but doesn’t have to have lots of information about you.  You can be listed or unlisted.  At its most expansive, it can be used to troll for dates by selecting attributes of people you’d like to talk to.  But you don’t need to participate in that or provide search attributes for yourself.

File transfer is not something you would try on your grandfather’s phone.  Makes perfect sense on a Skype connection, however, and it is available at no cost.  This feature only works between Skype users.

So Skype IS one of the services that convergence is all about.  You CAN send someone the file or photo you’re talking about.  You can type out the long URL of the fantastic website you are talking about.  You can form complex communities around buddy lists.  And you can talk, type or transfer files “free” within the community of 35 million Skype subscribers or at least that subset who are online at any one time – usually over two million.

I will be comparing Vonage features to Skype in a future post as well as contrasting the strategies of the two companies.

The first post in this series is everything you ever wanted to know about legacy access charges.

The second is about the cost of “free”.

The third explains Metcalfe’s Law of network value.

The fourth is about how Skype built huge network value.

The fifth is about Skype’s first paid service SkypeOut.

The sixth is about SkypeIn which makes Skype users callable from the outside world.

The eighth begins coverage of Vonage’s strategy.

The ninth asks whether we need phone companies.

The tenth asserts that we won’t need traditional mobile carriers either.

A related post contains a very short abstract of what Skype founder Niklas Zennstrom said at VON (Voice On the Net) Canada and a way to download the slides of my talk there.

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