Skype, the popular free VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protcol) unit of eBay, June 18 released a revamped platform that makes it easier for the service's 309 million users to make video calls from their computers.
The new Skype 4.0 Beta for Windows aims to leverage the fact that 28 percent of Skype calls were video calls in the first quarter of 2008.
That's the biggest change and it is a slam dunk at a time when users are increasingly using the Web as a preferred means of communication with friends, colleagues and business partners.
Short of being face-to-face with your best friend whose summering in Paris, Skype 4.0 lets you conduct video chats with he or she from U.S. to Europe right from your computer to her laptop by making a single click on the Video call button. Users can choose to have an IM conversation alongside the video call, also with one click, from one window.
New unified conversations capabilities pull instant messaging, voice, video, file transfers, SMS and calls together, allowing users to easily move in and out of conversations between single users or groups.
There is also greater conversation management.
For example, conversations button above the contact lists all the conversations users have going on and users can now click between them to pick up a conversation where they left off by storing them, or pull conversations out into separate windows.
This is a departure from Skype 3.0 and earlier versions, which hid such features behind too many tabs and menus, making it tricky for users trying to host multiple conversations.
"Skype is more than just cheap and free voice calls... we're really enabling many modes of conversation," Don Albert, general manager of Skype North America, told press and analysts during a call June 18.
This is as true as Skype has historically been a financial albatross for eBay, which bought the company in 2005 for $3.1 billion.
The allure of Skype lies in its free calls between consumers, but eBay had expected more businesses to sign up for paid Skype services and support. This hasn't played out as well as the online auction company expected. eBay took a $900 million write-down on the unit last year. Skype also suffered a two-day outage in August that ticked off its users.
However, things are looking up. Albert said Skype earned $400 million in sales in 2007 and $126 million in the first quarter of 2008, putting the unit on pace to make $500 million for the year.
Enter Skype 4.0, which will at least make Skype more attractive to buyers willing to take it off eBay's hands for a couple billion dollars. Albert claimed Skype "doubled down on the video" in Skype 4.0 because it is becoming table stakes for unified communications.
The company also made Skype 4.0 a snap to set up and run, so that the first time you plug in new computing devices, Skype will automatically detect it and start using it. The company will also remember devices so that even if you switch headsets in the middle of a call, the software will pick it up and roll with it seamlessly.
Skyp3 4.0 also makes it easier for new Skype users to find friends on the service Mike Bartlett, director of product management for Windows, for Skype.
For example, Skype has added the ability for users to import their contacts from exsiting e-mail address books, search for any contacts that are Skype users and add them to the Skype contact list. Users can also use Skype to invite others to the service, Bartlett said.
Also, because of the depth of changes, the Skype 4.0 beta will be longer than the VOIP provider's typically beta period, spanning the entire summer. This will grant users more time to offer feeback.
There is no final release date set yet for the Windows version. Nor are there timeframes set for the release of Mac and Linux versions of Skype 4.0.
The beta is also incomplete, lacking full history and contact groups, among other things.