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The popular, Internet-based phone service boasts some innovative features. But it's not ready to replace your landline
No wonder eBay (EBAY) was willing to shell out $2.6 billion for Luxembourg-based Skype. After trying the service, I've developed a lot of respect for its well-thought-out basic features. And while some of its more advanced functions had glitches, I was happy with the overall experience. I can certainly understand why millions of people worldwide use Skype.
The download from Skype.com took just a couple of minutes and was as easy as installing any instant messaging program. In fact, it was easier, as Skype can load even if you have a firewall or a virtual private network (VPN). That's not the case with some other IM services. (For those security reasons, some companies are wary of allowing Skype in the corporate environment. See BW, 11/28/05, "Getting Skittish About Skype").
The Skype window and many of the service's features were similar to those of other cutting-edge IM services. You can instant message buddies from Skype. You can also talk with them via voice, using your PC's microphone -- all for free (see BW Online, 11/28/05, "VoIP Providers: Heeding the Call?").
For a small per-minute fee, you can call regular phones and cell phones through Skype. The sound quality is not as good as your landline, but it's adequate. For about $36 a year (a three-month subscription is also available), you can purchase a SkypeIn number, which allows anyone to call you from a regular phone.
SkypeIn offers U.S. and overseas phone numbers. In the U.S. you can pick not only your area code but also the whole phone number -- Skype gives you a list of choices when you sign up. Most other voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) providers simply assign you a number in the requested area code. (See BW, 11/7/05, "The Call of the Web Phone" and BW Online, 11/7/05, "Hitting Snags With Vonage").
The benefit of getting a number abroad is, if you have relatives in Britain, for instance, you could get a British number so they could call you without paying international calling fees. In some cases, international fees still will apply, but those are exceptions.
I have a few bones to pick with SkypeIn, though I should mention that the service is still in its beta tests. Several times when I dialed the SkypeIn number from my regular landline, it took a while for the Skype phone to ring.
As the caller, I heard between three and six rings on the line before the Skype phone started ringing. Annoyingly, the Skype phone also kept ringing long after I'd hung up my landline phone.
On the bright side, the call connection was clear. And if someone calls your SkypeIn number when you are not logged into Skype, the call goes directly to voice mail, which comes free with your SkypeIn service, so you won't lose any calls.
IN THE MAIL.
Setting up voice mail wasn't intuitive, but it was pretty easy to follow instructions provided on Skype's Web site. I was able to record a personal greeting and set up call forwarding. (When the computer is turned off, this feature allows for calls to go to up to three phone numbers).
The voice mail service itself wasn't stellar. The recording saying, "You have a new voice mail" kept talking at the same time as the voice mail message. And my Skype window popped up a notification telling me that I had a new voice mail about 10 minutes after the message had arrived. That's a long wait.
I was looking forward to integrating Skype with my Microsoft Outlook contacts list, and that experience wasn't quite up to par, either. Some features worked: I clicked on "import contacts" to let Skype search through Outlook for contacts who have also signed up for Skype.
This would be a great feature if more people used Skype. Of 831 contacts Skype sifted through (which took more than two hours), it discovered only three people to integrate into my Skype contact list. It left me with a nagging suspicion that the search missed some Skype users, and I know of one Skype type it didn't pick up.
Skype Email Toolbar didn't work that well, either. The Toolbar lets you integrate your Skype contacts with your Outlook contacts. So you might get an e-mail from a friend and immediately call him, with a click of a button, from your Skype to his Skype, or to his regular phone, without actually having to punch any numbers.
Cool, huh? The problem was, the toolbar slowed down Outlook's performance, to the point where I had to uninstall the Toolbar to be able to use e-mail again.
Skype is different from your traditional phone service. For starters, it doesn't work when your computer is turned off, which is not the case with most other VoIP offerings. Also, as is the case with most VoIP offerings, if the power in your neighborhood is out, your Skype phone service will be, too.
More important, Skype doesn't support 911 calling. A lot of VoIP services say that, but at least they typically connect you to some emergency center when you dial 911. Not Skype. Skype doesn't route 911 calls anywhere, period. Frankly, I am amazed that in this day and age, it doesn't offer this capability.
PHONING IT IN.
That said, you can make your Skype experience similar to the familiar landline phone by purchasing one of several phones that work with Skype. I tried CyberphoneK, which looks like a small, ordinary phone. But keep in mind that, appearances aside, Skype phones don't function like your regular handsets.
For example, I plugged the device into my computer's USB port, lifted the receiver, and was startled not to hear a dial tone. I figured the device was broken. I tinkered with my set-up, scratched my head, and called tech support. Turns out the CyberphoneK simply doesn't have a dial tone. The device was working just fine.
On the other hand, Skype boasts many nice features regular phone services lack. Skype's directory allows you to search for users in a specific city, by age, and language. I searched for English speakers using Skype in Portland, Ore., and found nearly a dozen, some of whom even listed their home and work phone numbers in their profiles.
QUICK AND SIMPLE.
I sent them a brief message saying hello. They could choose to talk to me or to ignore me -- which, truth be told, all of the four people I contacted did. Still, considering that 2 million to 4 million people are logged into Skype at a given time, I'm sure I could find someone out there to talk to if I really wanted to.
I liked Skype's ease of use and its basic features. Right after you install Skype, a special wizard pops up and guides you through making your first call. You call Skype's test center and record and play back your voice, to make sure everything is working. The whole process is simple, quick, and easy to follow.
And, knowing how many new features Skype has in the works, I am sure the more advanced services will get better sooner rather than later.