Third-party technologies enhance Skype

Two third-party vendors introduced products that extend Skype's capabilities.

Skype Technologies' strategy of welcoming third-party vendors is spawning numerous extensions to its popular Internet telephony service, which is beginning to branch into videoconferencing, data collaboration and mobile wireless calls.

Santa Cruz Networks on Wednesday launched vSkype Beta, group videoconferencing and collaboration software that lets Skype users meet online with as many as 200 friends or business associates who also use Skype. On Tuesday, a Norwegian company, IPDrum, introduced the Mobile Skype Cable, a wire that connects a cell phone to a Skype-equipped PC in order to link Skype to the cellular network for mobile calls.

Third-party vendors are helping to make Skype increasingly attractive to businesses, said Burton Group analyst Irwin Lazar.

"There's kind of a Skype ecosystem developing," Lazar said. "Skype is almost becoming an alternative communications network."

Skype makes peer-to-peer VoIP (voice over IP) software that lets users make voice calls to any other Skype user on the Internet for free. Through its SkypeOut service, users can make calls to fixed-line and mobile phones in countries around the world at a fraction of the cost of conventional international phone calls. The Skype user interface also provides text messaging and presence information, which indicates whether other Skype users are currently available for voice calls or text chat.

The company, based in Luxembourg, doesn't reveal much about how its system works but has published an API (application programming interface) that developers can use to tie in their own software to Skype's technology, Lazar said. This has led to a variety of products that tie into Skype. For example, London-based Connectotel earlier this year said it has developed technology that allows SMS (Short Message Service) messages to be sent to users of GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) handsets via Skype's network.

Enhancements such as Santa Cruz Networks' videoconferencing, whiteboarding and application-sharing capability are further evidence of Skype's move up the technology chain, according to Lazar. Maverick Skype is elbowing its way into the converged communications market that Microsoft Corp. and other big names are heading for, he said.

The vSkype Beta software is available for downloading from www.vskype.com and can work on any Internet connection that is 56K bps (bits per second) or faster, said Stuart Jacobson, chief executive officer of Santa Cruz Networks. The Santa Cruz, California, company has developed technology that lets each user get the best possible video performance for their network connection, he said. The idea is that meeting participants with slower connections can join in with slower frame rates without dragging down the rest of the participants.

The beta software is free; a production version should be available for download in 30 to 60 days, Jacobson said. At that point, there will be a free version limited to four meeting participants and the company will sell interactive games, simulated backdrop images for videoconference participants and other add-ons through its Web site.

For enterprises, the company intends to sell meeting management tools, access to a high-quality network and the capability to add as many as 200 meeting participants, all through partners, he said. Pricing has not been determined.

One-on-one videoconferencing has never really taken off, but for meetings of several people it holds a lot of potential, Burton Group's Lazar said. If vSkype can deliver high quality, it could be an attractive service, especially with its link to Skype, he said.

IPdrum's Mobile Skype Cable is a cable that connects to a PC on one end and has a plug for a cell phone's data port on the other. With the phone linked to a PC running Skype, users can make calls through Skype using the cell phone as a handset, said Kjetil Mathisen, CEO of Oslo-based IPdrum. A prototype of the cable was on display this week at the CommunicAsia 2005 exhibition in Singapore.

But IPdrum's key concept is to let a mobile phone user make calls via Skype from anywhere there is a cellular network, using a novel setup that requires two cellular phones. After linking one cell phone to a Skype-equipped PC at home or in the office and keeping the cell phone and the PC on while they are away, users could call that phone over the cell network and through it get access to Skype, Mathisen said. The product could work well for users with a cell phone plan that lets them make free calls to phones on the same mobile network, he said. They could use it to make free VOIP calls from anywhere using their cellular handset.

Cables for the various phone brands will cost between US$60 and $80, including accompanying software, he said. The product will be available starting Aug. 15.

(Additional reporting by Sumner Lemon in Singapore.)

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