Thursday, February 01, 2007

Skype and the era of VOIP

There are a limited number of technologies that have made a fundamentally positive impact in my life and Skype is certainly one of the chosen few.

Let me give you an example. In the past, phoning my family in Turkey was an expensive ordeal. The options were limited and expensive:

  • Dialing direct
    • positives: good sound quality and limited numbers to dial
    • negatives: very expensive with connection fees (unless you have a monthly international calling plan) and exorbitant per minute rates
    • from a mobile phone it’s so expensive I shouldn’t even mention this as an “option,” but here goes:
      • 2.29/minute to landline
      • 2.38/minute to cellular and as a bonus the cell phone receiving the call get’s charged double for some unfathomable reason. I should also mention that in the early days, you had to ACTIVATE your phone to dial international numbers. So, in an emergency for instance, reassuring loved ones that you’re OK was a romantic notion at best
      • if you sign up for the save-you-a-bundle-not monthly plan at 3.99/month, your rates would be .36/minute for landline and .45/minute for mobile
  • Calling Cards
    • the numerous numbers dialed seem to take as long as the calls
    • terrible sound quality with unpleasant echoing and other noise as well as frequently dropped calls
    • calling card companies seem to be like last seasons shoes, you use them, get used to them and when you want another pair they're no longer available. They seem to go out of business like there's no tomorrow. So, in the long term you can’t expect to stick with one company and it’s lengthy access code you painstakingly memorized
As I grappled with these non-options in the early 2000’s, the clouds broke and we were all introduced to the wonderful world of Skype. All in all, it’s not a surprise that this model worked, Skype’s success is based on the fact that it’s founders could easily answer these three fundamental questions with a resounding “YES,” in it’s early days:

1. Is my product something that will satisfy a need for a large enough user base (or target market)?
2. Are these users meeting these needs in any other way right now?
3. Will my product provide better and more immediate relief to their need/s than what they are currently using?

Their call options were introduced in this order:
  • Computer to Computer
  • Computer to Phone (and vice versa)
  • Mobile Skpye to Computer
  • Mobile Skype to Landline or Mobile

When Skype was first made available the only option was the first one I mentioned, Computer to Computer. We may not think twice about it today but it certainly took us a while to wrap our minds around the concept. We all kept thinking there was a catch and that it was too good to be true and that surely, we would be charged insane sums through our ISPs. None of this turned out to be true, this WAS the real deal.

After the first option was adopted, slowly the second option was introduced. Purchasing SkypeOut minutes allowed users to call landlines from their Computers. This was the moment I had been waiting for, I heartily kissed my international phone plan goodbye and sent it packing forever.

With the third and fourth options, my life has changed. I am no longer tethered to my home timing the appropriate 10 hour difference in order to phone my parents in Turkey. I could be having brunch on a Sunday at Le Pichet in downtown Seattle and still call my parents via iSkoot (an intermediary application that connects my mobile device with Skype) on their computer, if they’ve logged onto Skype or on their landline in Ankara using SkypeOut at .14/minute, if they’re not online. I can do this with a peace of mind, that I will not receive an insanely high phone bill from my cellular carrier. The clear and crisp sound quality is as good as - if not better than landline connections.

I should explain how iSkoot works. Since I own a Treo 680 with no wi-fi access, I’m not using VOIP. iSkoot is using my air minutes (but still ONLY my air minutes not 2.29/minute) to connect me with Skype. If I'm using SkypeOut, then again, iSkoot uses my air minutes included in my carrier package to connect with iSkoot and then Skype is charging me the per minute fee per my country code. Considering the alternatives, I can live with that.

For true VOIP, those of us who own a PocketPC or Mobile PC, using Skype via your data line is a possibility. Drum roll- you can use your mobile to speak with others and only be charged the monthly fee for your data package. I’ve noticed in message board and blog posts there are those already out there looking for carriers that offer ONLY data packages.

Of course, I cannot imagine carriers realistically wanting to embrace such a technology that would take billions of dollars out of their pockets but it is conceivable that in the future with blanket wi-fi in major cities, phones like the NetGear Skype WiFi phone will be adopted more widely. The Seattle Wireless Project is working to achieve a blanket wi-fi for the City as I write these words.

The era of true VOIP has arrived and there’s no stopping it, so “take a deep breath” and relax.

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