At CTIA in Las Vegas March 31, Skype continued to make good on its pledge from earlier in the year to deliver the Skype application to a wide selection of mobile smartphone platforms-this time releasing Skype 1.0.1 for Apple iPhone. Despite some limitations in the current iPhone platform, Skype worked well on the device in eWEEK Labs' tests.
Skype for iPhone, which is now available as a free download from Apple's AppStore, shot immediately to No. 1 among free applications in the AppStore in the United States and several other markets as I and millions of others took the application for a test drive on its first day of availability.
Given known iPhone limitations (such as no background processes) and the restrictive AT&T policies that don't allow VOIP calls over its cellular data connection, I was pleasantly surprised with how the Skype application performed in my limited time with it.
During my tests, I quickly found that I could use much of Skype's functionality-including instant message chats, presence and profile editing-no matter which network I was connected to, be it Wi-Fi or EDGE (and most likely 3G, although I could not verify this as I have a 2G iPhone). However, it is indeed true that the iPhone is locked from making VOIP calls over AT&T's mobile network. Voice calls are limited to Wi-Fi.
When connected via Wi-Fi, I was pleasantly surprised that I could place both Skype-to-Skype and SkypeOut calls using the iPhone application, allowing me to reach both Skype users and PSTN extensions. This may not seem like a big deal at first-the iPhone is a phone after all-but since AT&T's coverage in both my office and my home is simply awful, it will be great to finally be able to place calls to anyone when I am in either of these Wi-Fi-rich locations.
There is no Skype video support for the iPhone at this time. Indeed, users should not expect to see Skype's video capabilities extended to the iPhone-or other mobile platforms, for that matter-any time soon. As Skype Chief Operating Officer Scott Durchslag iterated, much work needs to be done before mobile video chat becomes a reality: Carriers need to beef up their networks, devices need to have the right equipment (such as video cameras), and software makers need to do more to make the experience easier and of higher quality.
Prior to Skype for iPhone's launch, I had occasionally used the Fring multinetwork/protocol application on the iPhone to place Skype calls (the application leverages Skype's API), but as Fring cannot place SkypeOut calls, I found the application's efficacy limited.
Of course, SkypeOut isn't free. Users can buy minutes via Skype credit (at 2.1 cents per minute in the United States) or buy a monthly "unlimited" plan (which is actually limited by fair-use language to 10,000 minutes per month, or a maximum of six hours per day) starting at $2.95 per month.
Dialing a call is pretty simple with Skype on the iPhone. Users can dial numbers directly using the Skype dialpad, access their Skype contact list or use the iPhone's contact list for PSTN numbers.
Chats are similarly easy to set up, but as the chats are in-Skype-network-only (and not compatible with other IM networks, such as AIM or Yahoo), the Skype contact list is the relevant lookup source. Once on the chat pane, prior chat sessions are archived on separate screens (All or New), organized by contact. At this time, chat typing can be done only in the portrait orientation of the iPhone touch-screen. As with most other applications on the iPhone, use in landscape orientation is not an option (at least until iPhone 3.0 comes out this summer).
Via the My Info button found at the bottom of the Skype application, I could edit my personal information and update my profile picture-either with a photo in my photoroll or by taking a new picture. Once a photo is selected, Skype grants some simple tools to move or scale (by zooming in or out) the photo via the iPhone touch-screen.
I could also easily control my Skype presence, toggling between Online, Away, Do Not Disturb and Invisible. While such controls are absolutely a necessity with presence-based applications, the inclusion of the feature seems odd given the way an iPhone works. Because the iPhone does not allow background processes, Skype operates only when the user is in the application itself; if a user is doing something else (such as checking e-mail, surfing the Web or playing a game), he or she can't be online in the Skype network to accept calls or chats. Despite this massive limitation of the iPhone, Skype users can control their appearance when in Skype for long periods.
It will be interesting to see how Skype adapts its presence information, call delivery and chat notifications once Apple finally adds push notifications to the iPhone platform this summer. From what I gather, text-based applications should work fine, but I have my doubts that Apple's push notification mechanism will be able to push a call notification through in a manner timely enough that the call can be accepted.
I hope I'm wrong.
In a press conference prior to the CTIA trade show, Durchslag announced the new iPhone version, as well as a forthcoming beta version for Research In Motion's BlackBerry smartphone. Skype will start with a version for the BlackBerry Curve and Bold, available sometime in May, and will follow with a version for other BlackBerry devices. Interestingly, Durchslag said that Skype would play wait-and-see with Palm's forthcoming Pre platform, to gauge whether consumers favor that product.
With its new device support-in addition to support for Windows Mobile, Nokia, Java and Android platforms-Skype already has to maintain six different iterations of its mobile application. It likely will take some significant market penetration from a new device or mobile operating system before Skype decides to develop a seventh mobile version.
Nonetheless, Durchslag estimates that, come May, Skype will be installable on 90 percent of the existing smartphone installed base as a post-purchase download. This high number of potential endpoints will allow the company to focus its efforts on other avenues of mobile deployment-namely, targeting mobile operators and device makers for bundling arrangements. For example, Durchslag stated that Skype will be preloaded on certain Nokia N-Series devices sometime in the second half of 2009, starting with the N97 in the third quarter.