Skype is becoming more and more popular as a trendy, convenient, innovative and (most importantly) free way to communicate. Yet even with its rising popularity, many people still don’t know what it is or how to use it. This month in NetGuide we will cover all the bases so you can be Skyping it up in no time!
Skype is a software application operated by Skype Limited (based in Luxembourg), which allows users to make voice and video calls, as well as participate in instant messaging, over the internet. Any calls to other users within the Skype service are free (even if those other users are on the other side of the world!) But you can also use Skype to make calls to landlines and mobile phones using a debit-based user account system, and the fee is still considerably lower than what you would pay using most regular home or cell phones.
Skype was founded in 2003 by Niklas Zennström from Sweden, Janus Friis from Denmark and Samuel Grey from New Jersey. The Skype software was developed by Estonians Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu and Jaan Tallinn, who were also the creators of the peer-to-peer file sharing software Kazaa. The first public beta version of Skype was released in August 2003.
In 2010, Skype had 663 million registered users, and that number is growing in leaps and bounds every day. One of the major differences between Skype and other VoIP (voice over internet protocol) services is that Skype is a peer-to-peer system rather than client-server. This is reflected in the name "Skype” which comes from "Sky peer-to-peer” – the original name for the software. This was then shortened to "Skyper”, but some of the domain names associated were already taken, which lead to the final and current title, "Skype”.
Skype is used by many different people for many different purposes. It is extremely useful for people like me, who have moved across the world and need a less expensive (and in most cases free) way to get in touch with people back home. As useful as Facebook and email are, they are still not quite the same as talking on the phone and hearing the other person’s voice. Possibly the coolest thing about Skype is that you can see the other person too with the video call option! So it gives the feeling of sitting across from your friends, face to face, and provides a much more intimate experience than what you get with traditional phone calls or emails.
Skype is also becoming increasingly popular with businesses, which are using the service to conduct conference calls and even job interviews. Think about it – if you’re living in another part of the country (or even world), hunting for a job can be extremely difficult. Most employers won’t want to hire you until they’ve held at least one in-person interview. Skype can help solve this problem, since talking via video chat is pretty darn close to meeting in person. And even though some employers may still want to wait until you are in the country and can come into the office in person before offering you a position, this can at least get the ball rolling. That said, some network administrators have banned Skype on corporate, government, home and education networks, citing reasons such as inappropriate usage of resources, excessive bandwidth usage and security concerns.
HOW TO USE
First you have to download the program. This can be done by visiting the Skype website at www.skype.com and is available for free for the basic version or at a low monthly fee for the premium version, which includes group video calls, live-chat customer support and 25% off an HD webcam with purchase. Just click on the ‘download now’ tab, select your preferred version, create an account and follow the instructions for installation.
When creating an account, you will be asked to include profile information (much like you would on Facebook or with other social media) and choose a Skype name. Try to choose something that will make it easy for your friends to find you, as your Skype name is the name that people will most easily contact you under (rather than your full name or email address, as with some other programs). For our purposes, we are going to discuss the free version of Skype and instruct on free calls between Skype users (although the paid calls to landlines or mobile phones are done in much the same way).
Once Skype is set up on your computer, try testing it before you begin using it for real. To do this, click on the contact called ‘Skype Test Call’ or ‘Echo/Sound Test Service’. This is an automated testing robot and will allow you to check that your headset, speakers and microphone are up and running properly. Next, you can begin to add contacts. To find friends, select the ‘search for Skype users’ option from the ‘contacts’ menu or press the ‘add a contact’ in the left corner of your contact list. A new search window will open where you can search for friends by Skype name or by any other information they have listed in their personal profile. Once you have found a friend you would like to add, select the name from the search results and click ‘add’.
Now that you’ve added all your contacts, you’re ready to start calling! Select a Skype name from your contact list and click the green ‘call’ button. When you begin a Skype call, a new window will appear. The window will show the person you are calling and also the duration of your call. When initiating a call, you can choose between a regular voice call or a video call. If you start a voice call and later decide you want to add video, you can click ‘turn on video’. Even if one person has a webcam and the other does not, you can still set up video calling, but only the person with the webcam will be shown on screen. To end the call, simply click the red ‘end call’ button.
This is perfect for catching up with a group of friends, especially when you are all in different places. One of you might be backpacking through Asia, another working abroad, another on vacation in Hawaii and someone back home in New Zealand, but you can still all catch up on one call (for free if you all have Skype!) You can organise your contacts on Skype into groups (or add individual contacts/numbers to the call) and click on ‘call group’. Although the conference call feature does not include video, you can upgrade to group video calls by downloading the premium version of Skype. Additionally, if you download Skype now, you will receive a seven day free trial of the group video calling feature. The conference call feature of Skype is also extremely beneficial for businesses that want to save time and money, and reduce travel.
If one of your contacts tries calling you when you are away from the computer, you can activate a voicemail service (just like on your phone) for free, to make sure you never miss another call. To do this, simply visit the Skype website and click on the ‘features’ tab and then ‘voicemail’. Once your voicemail is activated, in your Skype account, click Tools>Options>Calls>Voicemail to record your message and organise your voicemail settings (such as how many seconds you want the service to wait before kicking over to voicemail and so on). You can also choose to receive your voicemails as text messages on your cell phone for 20 cents per message.
In addition to voice and video calling, Skype also offers an instant messaging service (like MSN or Facebook chat). This can be quite useful if only one person has a microphone and webcam because it allows that person to speak into the mic while the other responds via text.
There are a variety of features available on Skype at a low cost, which you can take advantage of by purchasing Skype credit. To do this, click the Skype tab at the top of your Skype account, and then click ‘buy Skype credit’. You can then choose the currency you would like the credit in, and purchase it online by filling out your billing information. Below are some of the tools you can use with your Skype credit:
With an online number your friends who do not have Skype can call you, like they would with a normal phone number, and you can answer the call on your computer.
For example, if you set up an online number and then need to visit the US (or anywhere else in the world) on business, your friends and family back home can call you as normal. Skype does all the clever stuff and routes their calls to your computer when you sign into Skype.
Skype to go number
This feature allows you to make low-cost international calls from any phone – no computer required. Let’s say you want to Skype with a friend in Canada, but you are away from your computer and don’t want to pay hefty international call charges from your mobile or landline. You can give Skype your friend’s number and it will be converted to a local Skype to go number that you can call from any phone. You can create up to nine Skype to go numbers in total – one for each of your international contacts.
You can actually send text messages through Skype as well, at a much lower rate than you’d probably pay using your cell phone, especially if you are texting internationally. (Take it from someone who was once slapped with a $470 cell phone bill due to careless international texting and roaming fees!)
Call forwarding lets your contacts reach you when you’re away from the computer by forwarding the call to your mobile or landline. For the caller it’s a free Skype call and for you it’s available at low per minute rates using your Skype credit.
Landline and mobile calls
As mentioned earlier, you can also use Skype to call landline or mobile phones anywhere in the world. You can do this using Skype credit and pay as you go, or you can get a monthly subscription of minutes.
Of course, with the rising popularity of Skype, there are now a number of accessories available for purchase to enhance your Skype experience. Especially exciting is the range of Skype-compatible smart phones and tablets now available. The company has released a number of mobile applications including versions for the iPhone, iPad and for Google Android phones. This means you can actually use the regular, free Skype services from your phone or tablet!
Other accessories include the ‘Digital Silence’, which lowers the ambient noise around you, allowing you to concentrate fully on your Skype conversations, and a variety of ‘bundles’, which offer you a Skype-enabled mobile, hands-free set and USB speakerphone for serious Skypers.
THE FUTURE OF SKYPE
Skype is just another example of how nearly every aspect of our world today is moving online. Some people have discussed the idea that in the not-so-distant-future, Skype will take over as the primary way of making phone calls, with people connecting their phones to their PCs (like many Skype users are doing already). If this were to happen, it could spell trouble for traditional telecommunication companies, but similar to the notion that the print newspaper, magazine and library will be wiped out due to digital media, this is still far from becoming a reality. Nonetheless, it is definitely a clear example of the type of digital society we are moving towards. With social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and online services such as Skype and online banking and shopping, there is not much left that can’t be done using the internet.
In May, Microsoft signed on to acquire Skype Communications for US$8.5 billion, making it Microsoft’s largest acquisition ever! Skype is set to be incorporated as a division of Microsoft, with Microsoft acquiring all of the company’s technologies, including Skype. Although this shouldn’t lead to any major changes or disturbances in the Skype software we know and love, it will bring about some exciting new developments. According to Skype’s vice president and general manager of products and marketing, Neil Stevens, the partnership will introduce a lot of integration with Microsoft products, including Windows Phones and Xbox consoles.
Although Skype already offers several mobile applications (listed above), the integration with Microsoft will bring about something unique for the Windows Phone app. Stevens explains that the company wants to create an app that doesn’t feel like an app but, rather, part of the phone. Skype will be able to do this on the Windows Phone operating system because, as a (future) Microsoft division, it will be allowed greater access to deeper levels of the operating system. "A Windows Phone app, if done well, can show people what a really great Skype experience is like when there are no hardware or vendor limitations,” says Stevens.
In addition to the Microsoft acquisition, it was recently announced that Facebook has now teamed up with Skype, adding to Facebook’s world domination by bringing video chat capabilities to the world’s largest social network. On July 6th, Mark Zuckerberg (co-founder of Facebook) unveiled the video and group chat features in a press conference at the company’s California headquarters. "The video calling is so great and it’s so easy,” he said. "Your least technical friend is going to be able to get online with video chat and get connected. You’ll connect with your friends on the social network that already has all your friends.”
The Skype-Facebook amalgamation was announced shortly after the unveiling of the Google+ social network, which includes a similar video conference call feature called ‘Hangouts’ and will compete with Facebook for the top spot in social networking.
Once Facebook webchat is deployed, you will be able to use Skype to make outbound calls to landlines and cell phones from within Facebook and call from Skype into Facebook. Some of these calls will require payment via Skype credit, which will enable the company to make money from the service. A Skype/Facebook mobile calling app and group video-chatting on Skype will also eventually arrive on the scene. Stevens explains that Skype’s Facebook alliance is not a one-time, one-product relationship. "We have a plan to build out a number of products with Facebook,” he says. "We’ll be Facebook’s key partner for communications.”
So what exactly does the future hold for Skype? Only time will tell, but we have a feeling this is only the beginning!