Skype On the Go

If there’s one ongoing user request from Skype users, it’s: “How can I access Skype from my mobile device?” Along with the associated question: “If I can make free calls via Skype on a PC platform, why can’t I do it on mobile devices?” Enlightened as a result of discussions with both Skype personnel and hardware partner vendors at the recent CES in Las Vegas, I wanted to provide an overview.

The first request yields the question: Why can’t Skype just be migrated to a mobile platform? The answer involves several issues:

  • diversity of platforms and operating systems (Nokia, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Linux)
  • device processor power
  • need to use a data plan for true VoIP
  • wireless protocol required
  • formatting the user interface for a mobile device’s display, keypad and operating system
  • a working, relatively efficient, voice communications protocol already exists for wireless devices

At the highest level, just as web sites and applications require a different approach on mobile devices, Skype user needs on mobile are different. But it is the data protocols and data plans that place the final limitation on migrating a VoIP client to mobile, in that 2G networks simply do not allow acceptable quality voice conversations, and only unlimited data plans, as exemplified best by free Wi-Fi, are cost-effective.

As a result, to date we’ve only seen two VoIP clients of any prominence for mobile devices: Skype for Windows Mobile, and Truphone. But these, too, have limitations. Both require either a Wi-Fi or 3G connection to the Internet, are platform-limited (Skype to Windows Mobile, Truphone to Nokia N- and E-series devices), and run most inexpensively when on readily accessible Wi-Fi or unlimited 3G data plans. And although Truphone takes advantage of embedded firmware and hardware to reduce processor demands, the combination of Wi-Fi and VoIP processing places significant demand on batteries.

As a result, Skype is trying to figure out how its service can be most effectively incorporated into the current existing wireless infrastructure involving today’s devices, carriers and Wi-Fi access. This involves overcoming some creative logistics, such as carrier reluctance to adopt VoIP.

Yes, we want to make low-cost phone calls, but also we would like to:

  • follow chat sessions within the practical limitations of a QWERTY keyboard or a T9 keypad
  • view and manage presence information
  • manage your mobile device interruptions
  • access both your Skype contacts and any inherent device address book
  • display and format appropriately on a QVGA or larger handheld display
  • send photos taken with a device’s camera to Skype contacts using Skype file transfer
  • adapt to network protocols, such as to handle both text and voice
  • make phone calls at the lowest possible cost using current carrier infrastructure (only 3G and Wi-Fi networks provide acceptable call quality, but cost and access availability become limitations)
  • help carriers build their business

So how is Skype accessed from mobile device?

The most common way to make Skype calls via 2G/3G wireless mobile devices has become one of placing and managing the Skype IM client on the device, using the data plan to set up a voice call — but making the voice call over the underlying 2G or 3G network employing a “Skype” server hosted by the carrier or service provider — and accessing the server via local points-of-presence in each major city.

The prime example for legacy wireless Skype access is the 3 Skypephone, which has free calls to Skype contacts worldwide, full Instant Messaging (with both presence and text chat), and the ability to handle calls to PSTN numbers via the carrier’s voice plan.

To the end user, a Skype conversation is simply a matter of selecting a contact, determining his/her presence, selecting whether you want a voice or IM session, and initiating the conversation. The logistics behind establishing the session are such that the user thinks they have made a normal call, yet it involves an algorithm along the lines discussed above.

The software behind 3’s Skype service comes from iSkoot, which has developed similar software for many other phones including Blackberry, Nokia and Windows Mobile phones. But iSkoot uses the same basic algorithm. In this way the only charges for an iSkoot call to a Skype contact are those associated with your own calling plan for local calls. A similar service with a different feature set comes from Shape Services IM+ for Skype, which offers conference calling and call backs to multiple phone numbers; IM+ for Skype also runs on the iPhone and iPod Touch. A totally different approach is taken by Mobivox, which provides low-cost Skype voice access from any wireless telephony device.

A key differentiator for Skype, related to taking advantage of existing infrastructure, is that it can be accessed from a multitude of (wireless) devices beyond those simply targeted to the telephony market , such as those announced and displayed at CES. The main challenge here is actually finding a Wi-Fi access point and being able to log onto the access point.

While the world awaits the ideal 4G wireless infrastructure that probably could handle VoIP clients with ease, there are many other routes to accessing Skype (and other VoIP services) today that will provide a more than acceptable user experience. Just don’t expect that because you can do it on a laptop, you can have the same user experience on a mobile device. And calls may not always be totally free, but they certainly provide a significant cost reduction benefit.

In the meantime, Skype is building out a worldwide real-time communications infrastructure that is largely agnostic to carriers and simply dependent on having broadband Internet access. Skype is also bringing real-time conversations to new types of mobile platforms beyond the traditional mobile phone handset, enabling voice in totally new social scenarios.

Also notable is the notion of open access as summarized Skype personnel:

“True ‘open access’ will be a major driver for the accelerated adoption of Skype (and other internet-based services from other companies like Skype) on mobile devices. Such things include “open access” from carriers ? that is the freedom for consumers to download any applications onto their mobile devices and the freedom to use data plans with any applications users choose (some carriers’ fair use policies preclude the use of IM and VOIP apps).”

Jim Courtney is an associate editor of Skype Journal and draws on 35 years of experience in the sales and marketing of high-tech products and services.