The peer-to-peer phone firm makes a business case

Skype, the company best known for its casual, decentralized peer-to-peer voice distribution network, has expanded its business offering, but managers make it sound as if it was almost an accident.

“We never really had a plan, or a five-year product roadmap, or anything like that,” shrugs Michael Jackson, vice-president of paid services for the firm. “We just want more people to use Skype.”

Skype came from consumer roots, starting as a client-based system that allowed people to chat casually online. It still serves mostly consumer traffic, routing calls from one desktop to another across the public Internet using the same technology used to exchange files on the Kazaa network. But the company launched its Skype for Business service in March last year, saying that 30 per cent of people are using Skype at work.

Skype for Business launched with features such as integration with Microsoft Outlook, administration of SkypeOut credits among multiple users from a central account, and the licensing of Skype-friendly third-party hardware. The expansion of the initiative sees Skype being installed on multiple computers by a single administrator, and integrated with existing IT management tools. Now, administrators can remotely configure Skype clients and turn off features including file transfer.

The company recognizes that most of its workplace users installed the software on their own, independently of IT. It is trying to consolidate its position in the business community and make it easier for businesses to control and formalize the adoption of Skype.

Companies who actively promote Skype rather than simply tolerate it are rarely using Skype as a telephony replacement, says Jon Arnold, VoIP analyst and founder of VoIP consultancy J Arnold & Associates. “What they’re finding is that people are using it in different ways for very different things,” he says. “Where people are getting the most benefit seems to be from internal conferencing and collaboration type stuff, where you can safely and securely do a lot of file exchange, for example.”

Such services have been around for years in the form of products like Microsoft’s MSN Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger. Those kinds of services, however, came from a text messaging background, whereas Skype put voice calls in the foreground from the very start.
Skype also opened up its APIs and heavily promoted them to third-party developers, leading to lots of plug-in services that would be useful for business. The developer initiative is the enabler for Skype Extras, a range of productivity plug-ins focused on business.

Benson Cowan, president of Toronto-based travel agency Butterfield & Robinson, runs regular orientations for new employees and freelance contractors working with his 90-person business, which also has offices in Italy and France. Overall, the company doesn’t save money on communications, he says — any VoIP savings are rapidly eaten up by other technologies such as BlackBerries – but the multi-person conferencing and online presence features of Skype gives the loose-knit employee base a sense of community.

Butterfield and Robinson’s Skype deployment happened independently of his IT team, which was relieved not to have to deal with it.

“With many IT groups, communication platforms are often a reluctant part of the mandate because they can be fraught with difficulties,” Cowan says.

Skype’s penetration of the business market will become increasingly organic the larger companies get. Regulatory and compliance requirements that require some forms to log and audit communications are at odds with the firm’s proprietary routing and encryption technology. Senior executives are unlikely to complicate existing telephony networks and agreements with their providers by putting Skype at the centre of their telecommunications policies.

Nevertheless, it is likely to continue to grow at a departmental level, and among small- to mid-range firms.

“It appeals to people who don’t have to worry about setting up an administrator,” says Arnold.
For Skype, which isn’t selling seat licences to businesses, all users will be the same.

Businesspeople are just as likely to buy SkypeOut credits as anyone else, which is why it wants to include them as part of its user base.

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