Skype Looks to Accelerate Mobile Video Chat With iOS App

Skype has made it official: It is pushing ahead with a major mobile video chat effort starting with an update to its iOS client. The move will allow iPhone 4 and 4th generation iPod touch users to talk with each other over 3G or Wi-Fi along with Skype users on Mac (s aapl) and PC (s msft) desktop clients. Just as I wrote Wednesday, Skype believes this will be a major step in further mainstreaming video chat in general and accelerating the adoption of mobile video conferencing.

The updated iOS app will not only work on the latest dual-camera iOS devices; it will also work on the iPad and the iPhone 3GS. The iPad will only be able to receive video, while 3GS users will be able to broadcast video from their camera, but won’t be able to conduct two-way chats. Rick Osterloh, Skype’s head of consumer product management, said Skype’s immense user base and its independent network should help propel Skype’s mobile video chat product past a raft of rivals, including Apple with its FaceTime service.

“It’s very difficult to build a service like this unless you’re spanning other ecosystems,” Osterloh said. “We can knit it all together with the Skype network.”

The launch of iOS video support was timed to hit before New Year’s Eve, historically the busiest day of the year for Skype. Tech observers had expected Skype to unveil the service next week at CES, where company representatives from Skype are scheduled to sit on a panel on video chatting. The updated iOS app was foreshadowed by a Skype help document that briefly appeared on Skype’s website on Dec. 24 and included many of the details about the video chat service.

Osterloh couldn’t say what other mobile platforms will be supported next. Skype recently launched an Android (s goog) client, and has also worked with Symbian (s nok) in the past. The company also supports BlackBerry (s rimm) devices and other Android phones through a relationship with Verizon Wireless (s vz). Osterloh said Skype will be moving quickly to tie in even more mobile users over time.

Skype, which is preparing for an IPO, currently has more than 560 million registered users, including 124 million active monthly users. At any given hour, as many 25 million people are online, and there are more than 30 million downloads of the Skype app on iPhones, making for a lot of people to reach out to over video. That’s one of the reasons why competing services have had a harder time in gaining mass adoption; they’re often limited by platforms, wireless network restrictions or small user bases, aspects that won’t bog down Skype as much. In addition to connecting mobile users with PC owners, Skype is also shipping its software in TVs from Panasonic, LG and Samsung, making video chat available from three screens.

Osterloh said Skype took its time building a mobile client that can support video. Without going into details, he said the client is very efficient and builds off Skype’s experience in video conferencing. Currently, 40 percent of Skype minutes are conducted over video. Osterloh said iOS users will be able to jump back and forth between video and audio-only to optimize for bad broadband coverage. By enabling 3GS users to participate in video calls, Osterloh said it will encourage those users to share more of their life through video. He said the company has no plans for a video voice mail-like service, though the company will look into the option, and he couldn’t comment on any plans to integrate video calls with Apple’s FaceTime.

As I wrote before, Skype’s entry here should be big for mobile video chatting. I love the act of mobile video chatting and find it very powerful for connecting me with others, especially with my family. But limitations and fragmentation between existing chat services has prevented me from using it more. Skype has the built-in user base and momentum to make mobile video chatting mainstream. It’s not for everyone, mind you, but they’ve got the pieces in place and the momentum to make this a reality for a lot of users.

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