Big Skype update coming next month

Skype is releasing a major, video-centric upgrade to its PC client next month, the company said.

Skype will release a big upgrade to its PC client software early next month, making video conferencing a central feature of the new interface.

The company has also released a beta version of Skype for Google Android and other Java-enabled phones, and said a version for Apple's iPhone is in the works. Skype also plans to increase its focus on business customers this year.

Skype 4.0, which has been in beta for several months, will be released in early February for PC users, with an equivalent for the Mac OS due later this year, Scott Durchslag, Skype's chief operating officer, told reporters at the Consumer Electronics Show Thursday.

The update includes a new codec that can handle video and audio twice as efficiently as the current version, according to Durchslag, giving smoother video and clearer voice calls. Skype 4.0 will support 30-frame-per-second video for people on fast enough connections, he said.

"The only thing I would caution is don't forget it's on," he joked, as he demonstrated the software with a video call from Europe. "Luckily I'm at this press conference and not in my shower this morning."

The client displays video in full-screen mode and the interface has a large green button that makes video calling more prominent. It also supports picture-in-picture, so the caller can see himself and the person he is calling.

A video call between three or more people presents "unique challenges" over Skype's peer-to-peer infrastructure, however, but it is high on Skype's priority list, Durchslag said. "Hopefully we'll have it in the not-too-distant future," he said.

Video is popular among Skype's 370 million users. On Christmas Day, 41 percent of all Skype calls were video calls as people used it to connect with relatives and friends, he said.

Skype is also coming to more devices. Skype Lite, the Java-based client for phones, should be available free from the Google Android store in the coming days. Along with T-Mobile's G1 Android phone, it will run on more than 100 Java-enabled phones from Motorola, LG, Samsung, Nokia and Sony Ericcson, Skype said.

The company has developed a Skype client for the iPhone but needs to reduce its power consumption before it can release it, Durchslag said.

More businesses are looking at Skype as a way to cut communications costs, but Durchslag acknowledged that the software still lacks features that businesses require, as well as a services infrastructure to support businesses.

It will enlist value-added resellers and systems integrators this year to provide those services. It will also add better security and management capabilities, and the ability to record digital video, which some call centers require.

He didn't give specifics about the planned business features but said Skype is likely to start by targeting small and mid-sized businesses.

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James Niccolai

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