Its all about "presence"—that magic trick of the Web, now reaching into the mobile arena, which allows people to know when to leave you a voice mail, and when to try talking.
And there really isnt anybody better than Skype at this. Except, of course, on mobile phones. Which is exactly where both Skype and eBay want to be.
The tie-in with eBay is on many levels, and, at first sight, presence isnt worth the money.
What we dont have, it seems, is a reliable way of knowing if youre bidding. Its called "sniping" in eBay circles: You start off by bidding $5 for a $50 item, and gradually over the next two days, it creeps up to $30—and then, in the last thirty seconds, people with sniper software pop up and make the winning bid—ping!—just like that, with two seconds to go.
What sniping doesnt do, however, is help the bidding go higher, and thats where Skype presence can come in. If you want to get a feel for how it works, check out Jyve. Its not hard to understand: It takes the Skype API, pulls out the "status" information of a subscriber and shows it somewhere else.
The logical place to put this function is on a Web site. For example, suppose you have sales people online; this lets you accept calls, free, over Skype, simply by putting the little tag on the Web page. Take a call and mark yourself "busy," and nobody else will waste time trying to talk.
Surely, I hear you say, this doesnt justify eBay spending over $2 billion to buy Skype? Actually, I hear a lot of people say it, so you arent alone.
Ive been told its madness on the same scale as the AOL takeover of Time-Warner—and thats another story. Its all too easy to look at AOL-TW financials and say "Cor, blimey, what a cockup!" but unless you can show me that you know what theyd have been without the merger, it doesnt indicate a lot... but thats a digression.
Heres the thing... for the last few weeks, Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström has been un-Skype-able. "Where has he gone?" I ask media contact Kelly Larabee.
"In a different time zone," she replies.
In fact, hes been in Taiwan, and his reason for being there is that he wants to get into mobile phones.
Weve seen part of his ploy with deals like the European tie-in with ISPs like Broadreach Networks—in which if you show up at Paddington railway station in London, you can pull out your Pocket PC and log onto the Wi-Fi hotspot there. Normally, that costs money. But if all youre doing is Skype, its free.
And you may have noticed that there are rival Skype clients for the Pocket PC that Niklas himself was using when I caught up with him there a few months back.
You can now get a soft phone from Cicero (details available here in PDF format), which, reviewers say, is better than the official one that Skype itself will give you.
The obvious problem with Skype—or any mobile message service—is finding a way to call people. Presence on your desktop is fine, excellent, even. But its not so darned easy when youre walking along with your phone in your pocket.
Ordinary mobile SMS (Short Message Service) texts are simple: They beep. You pull the phone out, say: "Ah, the boss..." and switch the thing off so you can pretend you went out of coverage at that moment.
On a Microsoft smart phone, you find yourself automatically signed in to MSN Messenger as soon as you switch it on, which means you can initiate "texts" to other MSN users. If theyre in front of a PC screen, theyll see the Messenger flash and will click on it. But if theyre buying a hamburger, the screen is likely to flash for ages without their noticing.
Youre impressed, I can tell. But let me guess: You still dont think thats a trick worth over two billion bucks.