Voice over IP technology’s ability to make cheap or free phone calls to anywhere in the world presents the classic opportunity/threat dilemma for mobile operators.
It eats into their lucrative revenue streams by drastically undercutting call charges. The popularity of VoIP programs like Skype – 40 million users and counting – leaves companies wondering whether to ignore or embrace it.
Anxious to cast itself as an innovator, 3 has taken the plunge to the extent of modelling a mobile phone around it. Its SkypePhone (pictured) is a slim, lightweight handset available in black or white that comes with a dedicated button for launching the Skype software.
The device is tactile, very user friendly and doesn’t feel cheap – in fact the €99 price tag belies an impressive range of features. No one-trick pony, it also has a digital camera, access to music and video download services, as well as internet connectivity.
Skype is centre stage, however. Like with a PC, Skype-to-Skype calls are free, although you need to top up €10 of call credit per month to make Skype calls with the mobile.
In tests I found the call quality usually good but occasionally prone to dropping. This will obviously be affected by 3G network coverage wherever the phone is used, so it’s worth keeping in mind.
The sound is OK if a little tinny – more so with Skype than when making a standard phone call. Skype on the PC sounds better to my ears, but this reduction in quality is a likely trade-off for the mobility.
Texting is easy (this now has a double function in that you can send free instant messages via Skype). A nice touch is that Skype conversations started on the mobile are automatically synchronised to your PC and vice versa.
One of the most disruptive elements to Skype is it lets you call regular landlines at lower cost than standard phone charges. Crucially and unfortunately, this feature is disabled on 3’s SkypePhone, apparently for technical reasons.
3 says it plans to have this issue resolved by next year, but it’s an obstacle that prevents the SkypePhone from being truly compelling instead of just interesting.
The device also doesn’t include Skype’s video-calling feature – a decision probably due to the cost of adding a second camera to the handset.
It seems to me Skype, rather than 3, stands to gain more from this relationship. The more people you know using Skype, the more free calls you can make.
It’s a good first attempt at a tempting price and later versions should hopefully improve on this template. 3’s exclusivity clause runs out in June; after then, other operators will be free to do similar deals with Skype. The question is, will they?
Pros: free calls to other Skype users
Cons: low-cost call feature disabled
By Gordon Smith