Skype Hype

I’ve been hearing about Skype for some time now, but haven’t really had a need to use it. Normal calls within the UK, even via mobile phones, are cheap enough to make it an inconvenience. Besides, PC-to-PC calls are possible via most of the instant messaging (IM) networks, completely free, and the bulk of my friends aren’t online all the time like me, so email and text message seem to be my main communication methods.

Skype also offers a PC to landline and mobile service called SkypeOut. The main benefit of this service is cheap rates. Realistically, this isn’t a huge draw as there are various phone services in the UK which provide low-cost calls at rates comparable to, if not cheaper than, Skype and you don’t need to be on a PC to make use of them.

Being overseas, however, with a laptop and a net connection, Skype suddenly becomes useful. My mobile operator charges a fortune for calls from overseas, and so do most hotels, mine included. With that in mind I downloaded the client and grabbed a bit of credit for SkypeOut. The cost to call back to the UK is 1.7p/min, which is very reasonable. So, armed with my new software and a headset mic, I gave it a go. I got through on my first attempt but while I could hear everything, they couldn’t hear me. I knew the service worked as I’d tried it out on the test connection when I installed the software. A bit of fiddling with the mic and I was satisfied it was working. I tried again and it all worked fine.

I’d used AOL Instant Messenger to do PC-to-PC connections a while back when my parents where living overseas, but the time delay (I was on a 56k connection, they were on DSL) meant that you had to take it in turns to talk. No such problem with SkypeOut. The connection was just like talking on the phone, although the sound quality, while good enough to hear and understand the other person, wasn’t particularly high. I, apparently, sounded tinny and the person I was talking to was a little garbled, especially when they talked loudly. Both of these problems could come down to the quality of my mic/headphone combo or my soundcard (it’s a laptop so I’m relying on a built-in sound card). On the other hand, it was cheap (free if I can get them to run the client on a machine that end), easy to set up and use and will allow me to phone friends and family back home much more easily.

Skype also offers some other functionality; you can set up conference calls for example (not sure if you can do this with SkypeOut). So you can do a virtual trip to the pub if you wanted to (everybody bring a cold six pack, slap on your headphones, grab a mic and it doesn’t matter how far apart you are, all your missing it the smell of stale beer). They’ve recently introduced a voicemail service, which means people can leave messages (useful as my current hotel doesn’t have a message service), and they've also introduced SkypeIn, a service which gives you a phone number that anyone can ring (i.e. via a normal phone) to connect to you anywhere in the world, but they pay whatever it would cost to phone that number normally (i.e. local rates if it's in the same country). Another feature, which only works PC-to-PC is the ability to send files to the person you are talking to. You can also get things like USB handsets that look like ordinary phones instead of having a headset and mic combo, these also allow you to punch numbers into a keypad rather than using the Skype client, and wireless handsets should be appearing shortly, freeing you from the PC.

I did notice someone pointing out how wonderful it was that they could have a 40 min call to India at no cost. What they fail to point out is that you both need to be signed up to Skype and at a computer. When they invent a Skype handset that plugs directly into a broadband modem/router that you can use without switching on a PC and firing up Skype, then it’ll be a service worth thinking about.

Skype doesn’t really have any features that make it a must-have application, especially when you’re at home. If you could sign up for a net connection without a phone line, I could see a use, but, as far as I know, you can’t. Maybe when Wi-Max (which is being touted as a possible threat to mobile phones) becomes commonplace and you can connect to the net without a phone line it will become a real alternative to a normal phone. If you travel frequently it would be very useful as a cheap means of phoning home (or anywhere else), and of taking messages you can access all the time (without you or the caller incurring large charges from a mobile operator), but you need access to a net connection (and I’m not sure a dial-up connection would be beefy enough), which adds to the price and may possibly defeat the only real benefit. Of course, some companies may think it a good idea to allow people to install it on their work machines to allow communication with home without costing them the Earth. If you and your friends are IT-literate it would be a great way of making calls for free, but you could do this through any IM program, as I’ve mentioned. So far then, I am at a loss as to why so many people are using it and can’t, as yet, see an overwhelming reason to download and start using Skype.

Update (23/04/05): I just made a 50-minute call home (to a normal landline phone) for less than a euro, now that's cool.

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