Skype for Business too risky?

You might want to hold off on using the free service

If you're thinking about using Skype for Business as a way to save money you might want to put it off until the courts settle lawsuits that swirl around plans to sell the company.

That's the advice of Irwin Lazaar, an analyst with Nemertes Research, who otherwise regards the company's enterprise offering, Skype for Business, as a viable way to save on long-distance calls. "Skype's future is very much in doubt," he says. "I would wait at least six months or a year for the legal wranglings to work themselves out."

Skype's founders want to buy it back from eBay and have filed lawsuits that could jeopardize use of essential code that the founders still own. Without the code, the risk of Skype for Business being disrupted is serious enough that customers should beware relying on it, Lazar says.

Legal uncertainties aside, Lazar says Skype for Business is a significant opportunity to reduce long-distance costs. Any of Skype's 16 million users can call a Skype-enabled business and customers for free, helping to control costs for contact centers or remote corporate employees, he says. The service can also complete calls to non-Skype numbers using the Internet as a long-distance backbone and then dropping calls off at local public phone exchanges for completion.

A range of VoIP and IP video vendors support Skype, making it simpler for their customers to integrate Skype with the vendors' commercial offerings. These include Cisco, [Shortel], SIP Foundry (part of Nortel) and LifeSize, and there are talks with Alcatel-Lucent and Microsoft, says Stefan Oberg, general manager and vice president of Skype for Businesss. Since LifeSize is a telepresence vendor, this relationship suggests future video integration with Skype.

Skype certification means customers of these vendors can receive and send Skype calls via the certified gear. Inbound Skype calls are free, and businesses can buy Skype minutes to make outbound calls from phones attached to the certified call servers. Calls are carried between callers' local Skype points of presence to Skype POPs close to called parties, eliminating long-distance charges, via a service called Skype for SIP.

Skype for Asterisk is a separate program that supports the same features through open source Asterisk IP PBXs, plus it adds the ability to call Skype names from the PBX. Skype has also certified session border controllers from Acme Packet that facilitate the interoperability of IP PBXs with Skype's network.

Skype for Business is still in beta testing, a program for which 9,500 businesses signed up when it was announced in July, he says.

By receiving inbound Skype calls, businesses can reduce their 800-number costs because anyone with a Skype client or Skype phone can contact the business for free, Oberg says. Businesses can put a Skype calling button on their Web sites, so people with Skype who are browsing these sites click on the button and are connected to the business via a Skype call. He says a French insurance company receives 10% of its customer calls via the button on its Web site.

Hotels could use Skype for SIP for connecting potential customers visiting their Web sites to reservation agents. Once they make reservations, they could give friends and colleagues the Skype name for the hotel so they could acquire Skype clients and make free calls to the guests during their stays, Oberg says.

Some businesses are using consumer Skype clients for business purposes even before the service Skype for Business becomes generally available by year-end.

Maxim Integrated Products, an analog computer-chip maker based in Sunnyvale, Calif., says it saved $90,000 over the past year with an informal Skype program. The company bought Skype's all-you-can-use outbound calling to the United States and Canada for $30 per user per year for 2,000 users. The company installed a Skype client on each PC and issued a headset or USB handsets to the users, says Walter Curd, Maxim's CIO. They don't have to use it, but those who did saved the company $150,000 in long-distance fees in one year, a net savings of $90,000, he says.

Only 20% of the users use Skype heavily, he says, and about 20% don't use it at all, with the rest using it sometimes. Most use it for talking with fellow employees at other company sites, he says.

Maxim beefed up the bandwidth on some of its Internet connections to insure they didn't affect Skype call quality, he says, but because of lower pricing, that didn't increase the cost to Maxim. "The problem with Skype is the quality of the internal network, not the quality of the Internet," he says.

Maxim's primary phone system is made up of traditional Nortel PBXs, with Skype being used as a supplement that adds desktop video and instant messaging to the communications mix, Curd says. The company already uses Polycom teleconferencing gear, but it requires scheduling rooms in order to use it. "I can never get the room for conferencing with my direct reports," he says. So he issued them desktop Web cameras and videoconferences over Skype instead.

The downside is that Skype drops about one in 50 calls. "But hey, it's free. Just call back," Curd says. "You complain about Skype, but who hasn't had a dropped call or call quality problems on a cell phone?"

He says he is aware of the lawsuits against Skype over its code. "There's uncertainty. The [suits] could in effect shut them down," he says. "It would be disappointing, let's put it that way." But Maxim would still have the Nortel phone system to fall back on.

He says the company could use Google voice --– another inexpensive VoIP peering service -- but likes the fact that Skype makes money from its service, meaning that it has to deliver a certain level of service or fail commercially. "The problem with Google is it's not their business, it's their hobby. I might consider them when they're making money at it," he says.

Meanwhile, as the lawsuits make their way through the courts, experts advise caution, since a ruling might at least temporarily halt Skype's use of necessary code. "If you're considering using Skype as the most important part of your business voice, you're going to want to wait and see," says William Sofega, an analyst with IDC.

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