North American businesses are finally beginning to get Skype, the peer-to-peer voice-over-the-Internet service acquired 18 months ago by eBay for US$2.6 billion. For its part, Skype, after disavowing any interest in the enterprise market as recently as a year ago, is now actively courting it.
The company recently released Skype for Business, console software for managing company Skype accounts. It has also certified dozens of hardware products, from wireless handsets to software PBXs and PBX gateways, that will make it easier for non-geeks, including businesses, to use the service.
Still, Skype has a long way to go before it becomes a mainstream enterprise application — if ever.
“The use of Skype in businesses is fairly common now, especially in smaller companies where there are no security or firewall issues,” says IP communications consultant Jon Arnold, president of Toronto-based J Arnold & Associates. “A lot of companies use it on a regular basis for quick, unencumbered communications, but they’re not really using it as a corporate tool.”
The upsides to Skype in business are simple enough. It’s free, at least when you call PC-to-PC to another registered Skype user. And it works, surprisingly well. In fact, voice quality on good connections is better than the PSTN because Skype uses wideband codecs that deliver more audio information.
True, if you use Skype to call a regular phone, it’s merely very cheap: about $35 a year for unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada as of January 2007. And it only works really well most of the time. “There’s no quality of service,” Arnold notes. “It’s pretty good, but not 100-per-cent business quality. You wouldn’t use it as a substitute for a regular phone.”
Some adventurous microbusinesses are using Skype as a substitute for regular phone lines, though. Eric Taylor, owner of an Allied Home Mortgage Capital Corp. franchise in Warrenton, Va., recently dropped five Verizon phone lines — a cost saving of about $235 a month — and switched to using Skype with CallButler, a PC-based software PBX from Works Out Software.
Calls to Taylor’s main Verizon number, the only PSTN line he retained, are forwarded to a SkypeIn number (a PSTN number provided by Skype that allows callers from regular phones to reach a Skype user). At that point, the CallButler auto attendant takes over and routes calls over Skype to the appropriate employee. Many work from home part of the time. They can receive Skype calls wherever they are. If they don’t answer, calls go to CallButler voice mail and are delivered as e-mail with audio attachments.
“You do occasionally get a [static] sound on Skype calls,” Taylor concedes. “But I can deal with static here and there for the savings and the improvements in functionality we get with Skype [and CallButler].”
MORE THAN VOICE
It’s not just the cheap or free calling. Skype is also an instant messaging (IM) platform and provides file-sharing capabilities. Taylor recently had a customer in Switzerland transfer a file to him while they talked on Skype. “It only took a few seconds,” he says.
A growing number of users, especially younger people now entering the workforce, either prefer IM to voice or use IM as an adjunct to voice. Arnold uses Skype’s presence features to check and see if a contact is online and available for a call. If you’re already talking to somebody on IM and decide that you need to talk, he argues, it’s easier to place a Skype call as part of the same session than go to a phone. “With Skype, [the call] is just one click away, and you’re not tying up a phone line.”
A small-town mortgage brokerage is one thing, though. An enterprise is another.
Skype can certainly deliver significant cost savings if you have employees or customers overseas, especially if they’re in out-of-the-way places that are expensive to call from Canada. Or if you have virtual employees or work groups dispersed across the country or continent. Or if you have road warriors who hang out at Wi-Fi hotspots and could use Skype instead of expensive cellular minutes.
But companies need to take precautions against potential network security risks, says Ross Armstrong, a senior research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group. Armstrong roiled the passionate Skype community a year ago by advising enterprises to ban Skype outright. He has since softened his stance.
“What we were calling for back then was just to make IT managers aware that Skype created this potential back door for sensitive information to leak out or nasty executable code to sneak in. The criticism wasn’t against the technology itself. We were saying, ‘If you’re going to use it, just make sure you manage it.’”
Armstrong was concerned that because Skype can easily penetrate firewalls, often undetected, it could expose networks to viruses, worms and other hacker attacks — although he concedes he knows of no cases in which Skype was implicated in such attacks. Also, if Skype’s closed-source encryption were ever compromised, outsiders could conceivably intercept calls resulting in information leaks.
Others pointed out that Skype could hog bandwidth on corporate networks because it commandeers some users’ computers as “super nodes” for switching and routing calls in the same geographic area. In a more recent research note on the use of