managing director, Seaboard Group

Is it clever technology looking for a purpose – or the Next Big Thing in social networking?

Skype, the Luxembourg-based VoIP provider, recently announced it is pilot-testing a new shared communications service, dubbed Skypecast, that will allow up to 100 people to hold spontaneous online phone conversations. I find communicating with five or 20 people at the same time difficult. I can only imagine what talking to 100 would be likeIan Grant >Text

Skypecasts are live, moderated discussions that allow Skype users anywhere in the world to discuss shared interests and engage in cultural and political debates. The service is likened to Web blogs.

A designated moderator is able to pass a virtual microphone to participants in the group who wish to speak. The moderator can also silence or reject participants.

“To date users have been talking one-to-one and one-to-many in private settings. Skypecast is about starting to have conversations in public settings,” said Saul Klein, head of marketing at Skype.

The software for Skypecast was made available online on May 3. Hosting or participating in a Skypecast is free. The product is also being piloted at the Luxembourg-based unit of online trading site eBay Inc., which acquired Skype last year.

Telecommunications analysts and even teenagers are wondering who will use the new service.

Iain Grant, managing director at the Seaboard Group, a Montreal-based telecom consultancy, has mixed views on Skypecast. ” I find communicating with five or 20 people at the same time difficult. I can only imagine what talking to 100 would be like. ”

The innovation may be impressive, but Skype should perhaps leave well enough alone, said Grant. “Skype engineers are pushing the envelope and I applaud them for coming up with this one. Now they can put it back in the box.”

But another analyst finds Skypecast intriguing. “It plays a part in social networking trends such as blogs, Wikis and instant messaging,” said Stefan Dubowski, managing editor of Canadian telecom research at Ottawa-based Decima Reports. “We don’t know what effect it will have on society.”

Dubowski said Skype could be uniquely useful in isolated Northern areas where there are huge tracts of land that have no roads or communications infrastructure. “Skypecast could allow people there to communicate by voice cheaply. It could be an alternative method of holding town hall meetings.”

However, Dubowski questioned the service’s utility in the business world.

“Companies will probably say, great, we can cut costs on conferences. But is it really built for business? I think not.” For the service to be attractive to business, it would have to address quality of service issues as well as security control and auditing functions, he said. “I don’t think there were any indications of that and I think Skype at the moment is more focused on the consumer side of business.”

On the other hand, perhaps it’s the business world that’s not ready for Skypecast, said Mark Blowers, a senior research analyst at the Butler Group, a London, UK-based research consultancy.

The service could be very useful in some business scenarios, he said. “Small organizations could make use of it for broadcasting information or for communicating with groups in remote locations. But texting and email is still regarded as the more convenient medium rather than voice for that.”

Blowers also questioned if there is much demand for the Skypecast service. “Skype is a fairly dynamic company and has always been innovating. I think in this case they have come up with a service that is looking for a need,” said Blowers.

Last but not least, a techno-savvy teenager weighed in with a next-generation opinion of Skypecast.

“Yeah, nice. But why would I want to talk to a hundred people? That’ll be confusing,” said Julian, a 13-year-old boy hooked on the online game Runescape and instant messaging over the Internet.

Users will ultimately determine Skypecast’s utility – and its fate, said Dubowski. “Skypecast would be a user-defined service. It would be interesting what people will find to do with it.”

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