The company on Wednesday unleashed its SkypeWeb and SkypeNet developer tools. By doing so, the company says, it's opening up its platform to people who wants to integrate Skype Instant Messaging--a lesser-known feature of Skype--into their applications.
"Skype to wants to embrace the rest of Internet," Skype co-founder Janus Friis said during a recent interview.
Skype IM is given away free, along with the company's Net phone software, to people who register with the company. The company says that it has 51 million registered users but did not provide an estimate of how many of those people use the IM service. Skype says, however, that it can be a significant threat to instant-messaging giants America Online, MSN and Yahoo. Representatives of AOL and MSN did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Yahoo spokeswoman Terrell Karlsten said Skype is a "newcomer to a market where Yahoo Messenger has consistently taken market share from its competitors."
In any event, Skype's Friis said he expects a large number of hardware and software makers to weave Skype's IM into their creations during the coming months. But he wouldn't identify any companies intending to do so.
He did offer hypothetical examples. People playing massively multiplayer online games could use Skype IM to taunt rivals and discuss strategy with teammates. The instant-messaging capabilities could also be incorporated, Friss suggests, into software-based media players for personal computers, Web sites for dating, blogging and "eBay kinds of auctions."
But there's one major drawback to Skype's new initiative. People can't incorporate Skype's Net phone features into their applications. Like many other companies in the VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) business, Skype makes software that lets people place free calls over the Internet. It's this product for which the company is best known.
"Voice is an emerging area of technology; we're watching it keenly and will help promote maturation," said Kelly Larabee, a Skype spokeswoman. "The demand and the interoperability existed for IM, and we acted."
The move come a few days before the second anniversary of Skype's first release. Since Skype's launch on Aug. 29, 2003, there have been 12 billion minutes worth of Skype phone calls.
In addition to people who use the free software to place PC-to-PC calls, more than 2 million people pay a few dollars a month for a service that lets them reach landline and cell phones.
Skype and host of rivals are using VoIP technology to offer more calling features for less money. In this topsy-turvy market, Skype represents a competitive extreme: Using peer-to-peer architecture, it claims it can offer its software-based telephone service for free to tens of millions of people, and still make significant profit by persuading a fraction of its users to pay for premium services.
Of course, calling with Skype, as with other VoIP systems, means poor voice quality if the digital voice packets must contend with crowded Internet connections. Emergency dialing is also a problem; many VoIP operators can't guarantee 911 calls reach an emergency dispatcher near enough to do much help.
And in order to make a big impact, Skype needs to get its service off of PCs and onto familiar phone equipment via the traditional phone network, which most people still use.