This could be one of those defining moments. You know, the kind that change an industry. Like the iPod, for instance. Only this time it’s a phone. Not the Google phone, but the Skype phone.
See, the Skype phone, introduced today in the U.K., has the potential to be revolutionary, not evolutionary, if done well. People will place calls using the Internet, or what’s known as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). The calls are essentially free, or very low cost to the end user, because they use the Internet and not a service provider’s network.
Until now, most Skype calls have been made from computers attached to fixed-line Internet connections. Users call each other around the world wearing uncomfortable microphone headsets that, for the most part, look like something an air traffic controller would wear. Skype has gotten a bit more mobile in the past year — at least around the house — with the advent of Skype-enabled phone-to-computer bridges and portable handsets.
But Skype users have never left home with an actual Skype phone. Until now. Skype and 3, the fifth-largest mobile carrier in the U.K., have teamed together to launch a new affordable handset that lets people make free Skype-to-Skype calls and send Skype instant messages at no cost. It’s the first time an operator has offered a mass market phone tailor-made for free calling over the Internet.
The 3 Skype phone is a fully-featured 3G Internet phone with Skype built-in and always on. The phone, developed in partnership with Qualcomm and Chinese manufacturer Amoi Electronics, also includes an MP3 player and a 2 MB camera. Users press the Skype button to use their contact list and see who is available to take a call.
The Skype phone will be available in the U.K. on Friday. It’s free for existing 3 customers and will cost GBP49.99 on a pay-as-you-go plan. The phone will also launch in Australia, Austria, Denmark, Hong Kong, Italy, Macau, and Sweden before Christmas. It will not be available in the U.S., at least not yet. Skype and 3 missed an FCC deadline.
Skype, owned by eBay, and 3 hope to sell “millions” of phones over the next few years. “Skype is now truly mobile,” said Michael van Swaaij, acting Skype CEO. “This new handset is incredibly easy to use and lets you make free mobile Skype calls when you are on the move to other Skype users.”
The big questions — and the reasons why this might not be a defining moment — are there are no guarantees of network reliability (Skype suffered a severe crash in August) and, for the moment, the Skype phone only works Skype-to-Skype.
Skype boasts 246 million registered users, with 70 million regular users. Users will not be able to use their Skype phone to call anybody on a landline or cell phone, known as SkypeOut, which allows customers to make cheaper-than-average calls to non-Skype users. SkypeOut is supposed to be available sometime next year.
Finally, most mobile operators — Vodaphone, T-Mobile, and Orange in the U.K. — have not taken kindly towards customers using VoIP solutions on their networks. The relationship between the carriers and free or near-free has yet to be worked out.
Until these are met, that defining moment may not come.