CNET Labs has a review of the latest version for Windows of Skype's namesake voice over IP product. It scored an 8 out of 10. The review cites the addition of two features -- SkypeIn and Skype VoiceMail -- as being the significant changes to the "dot-level" release. Of the two, SkypeIn, which is in beta, is the most important and once again proves how a little innovation can go a long way towards making a product special. Whereas Skype users can call other Skype users at no charge all day long, the company makes its money when people start bridging to the plain old telephone system (POTS).
SkypeOut, which has been available for a while, allows Skype users to use Voice over IP technology (VoIP) to dial a landline or cell phone number. The ability to bridge from a VoIP technology to the POTS is nothing new. It's fairly standard for many VoIP technologies. What's cool about SkypeIn, though, is that it goes the other way. It assigns a POTS telephone number to your Skype account so that people can use their landlines and cellphones to reach you. What's even cooler is that you can pick up to ten numbers, including international ones, to assign to your account (you must pay for each separately). So, if you work in the U.S. but do a lot of business in Finland and you don't want your customers to have to pay for an international call every time they want to call you, you can assign a Finland-based number to your account that they can use to reach you. Skype's voicemail service is included when you get a SkypeIn number.
But while glowing reviews of Skype are easy to find, the software still has some problems. For example, SkypeIn is extremely limited on the numbers you can pick from and the aforementioned benefits aren't available for every country. In terms of international support, when picking a number, Skype's country selection page only lists Denmark, Finland, France, Hong Kong, Norway, Poland, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S. Of those, some are greyed out (not available) and of the remaining ones, there may be restrictions. For example, you must guarantee that you're a resident of Poland in order to get a Polish number (this is apparently a requirement of the Polish Regulatory Authority).
Picking a U.S. number can be tricky, too. The first time I tried to buy a SkypeIn number, Skype's site simply refused to take my credit card, and insisted that I was leaving an address field on the e-commerce page blank when I wasn't. I'm not sure if that bug is cleaned up or not because now, when I go to select a number from any of the nearby area codes in my home state (617, 978, or 508 -- Massachusetts), it comes back and tells me that no numbers are available for that area code (to which I ask, "Then why list those area codes in the drop down?"). Even 415, the area code for my company's headquarters, is no good. There are a bunch of other area codes that do work, but my preference right now is for one that's the same as all of my other numbers and it's clear I'm not going to get that for now.
When I inquired about the problem on number availability, company spokesperson Kelly Larabee was quick to remind me that SkypeIn is a beta feature and isn't completely rolled out yet. Said Larabee via SkypeIM, "during the beta it's relatively limited." Normally, when reviewing a product, I'd be a little more lenient during the beta phase. I expect probems with beta products. But with services (as opposed to products), beta takes on some new meaning since the beta "component" isn't a distinctly separate physical entity the way it used to be with software. With beta software, you got some CDs or downloaded some code, and you loaded that onto a non-production system for some testing. This way, you keep your production stuff separate from your beta stuff. But with a service, such segregation isn't really possible. Unless service providers want to offer a competely separate instantiation of their services (which some ASPs like Salesforce.com do), the beta functionality must be woven in to the production version of the service. This is what Skype is doing, which means its beta features will get treated more like production software.
Another problem that I've been complaining to the folks at Skype about is that SkypeOut has problems when working with many phone conferencing systems -- the type that ask you to dial in a conference ID and password. For example, in the course of trying to podcast a panel discussion (involves three or more people), I've tried several approaches. The first of these was to build a Skype-based conference call by Skyping Out to each of the participants. But, experience has so far proven this to be a risky approach during the Internet's busiest and most congested times. With multiple Skype streams running simultaneously, the chances of a "drop out" while someone is talking goes way up.
To solve the problem, I decided to set up a POTS conference call using a commercial conferencing service. Once all the guests were on that call, I could SkypeOut to it from my PC and then record the entire thing with Audacity. Theoretically, the reduction in multiple Skype streams to just one would reduce the odds of a dropout while the commercial conferencing service handles the voice multiplexing. But, in trying to do this, I ran into another unexpected problem that has persisted in both the Mac and Windows version of Skype since I first started using it: most of the commercial conferencing services that I've tried to dial into can't hear the tones generated by Skype's software keypad in order to gain access to the right conference. As a last resort, I've been dialing someone else's POTS phone number directly; then that person (using a second line) accesses the conference call, and (using their own phone's conferencing capability) ties the two calls together, which in turn draws me (coming through Skype) into to the conference call. All this to work around a problem that I shouldn't be having. Larabee says that the problem can't be solved in software and that it's a telco interconnect problem. This sounds odd to me since I've never had that problem with my telephone. Whoever is to blame and however the problem gets fixed, my hope is that it will also include the ability to generate tones automatically by including the numbers, with pause codes, in the original dial strings.
Another aggravating problem has to do with Skype's address book. The good news is that Skype is finally storing your contact list online, along with your account information. What this means is that if you switch devices (go from one PC to another or you go from a PC to a handheld), your contact list will follow you. Prior to having this functionality, if you switched devices, you had to re-enter all of your contact information. So, this is one of those small changes that goes a long way. Another small change I'm waiting for -- and it is one that Skype users have been waiting far too long for -- is the ability to change contact information. Today, if you right click on a contact in Skype, you can rename the contact, but what you can't do is change the phone number. According to Larabee, if the phone number of your contact changes, then you must delete the contact and re-enter their information all over again. This prehistoric way of editing contact lists is reminiscent of how software that was designed in the 1970s used to work. (You can add and delete, but edit? Forget it.)
Should the folks at Skype find it in their hearts to fix this problem, my hope is that they'll also make it so you don't have to create separate entries for the same person -- one for their Skype ID, one for their mobile phone, one for their landline, and one for their home phone. Instead, there should be one record for each contact, and that record should include all the different ways of contacting that person. Then, in the user interface, when I pull up my partner-in-crime Dan Farber's record, I can pick from any of the different "channels" before initiaiting contact. It would be for Skype to argue with this approach since we can already choose between calling or IMing a user from the "record."
Bottom line: I love Skype. But the hype over Skype tends to gloss over some fundamental problems with the software. Or is it a service?