Skype targets businesses with new service

The new Skype For SIP offering allows companies to use their existing phone system to make cheap phone calls over the Internet.

Skype is going after business customers with a service designed to help cash-strapped companies reduce communications costs.

On Monday, eBay-owned Skype will announce a new version of its Internet calling service that allows companies to use their IP-enabled corporate telephone systems to make Skype calls using regular office phones instead of using a headset that plugs into a PC.

The new service called Skype For SIP allows companies to use the Skype service with their IP-enabled PBX's, which use an open standard called SIP or Session Initiation Protocol. Companies using the service can make phone calls from their office phones to any regular phone or cell phone at the same cheap rates that Skype's consumer customers can. The calls are carried over the public Internet.

Skype For SIP users will also be able to purchase online Skype numbers available in over 20 countries to receive calls from business contacts and customers who are using traditional fixed lines or mobile phones. Skype is launching the beta test of the service Monday and will offer it commercially later this year.

The majority of Skype's 405 million registered users are consumers, but about 30 percent of them also use the service for business, the company has said. Most of these business users have been small or medium-sized companies looking to keep costs down. Since the economic downturn began last year, executives at Skype say the company is seeing a surge in interest from businesses of all sizes that are looking to use the service to cut costs.

"We're seeing a whole new opportunity in the business market, as companies that I'd never have thought would be a target for Skype are pro-actively coming to us and asking for a solution," Scott Durchslag, the company's chief operating officer, said at a press conference during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.

Skype has been trying to reach business customers for nearly three years. In 2006, it announced Skype for Business, which is designed for users who lack the resources to invest in building their own Internet Protocol telephony networks or to subscribe to expensive managed services from a telephone carrier.

The service includes a Web site, Skype.biz, which offers downloads to make using Skype easier. As part of the Skype For Business service, Skype also integrated its software client with the Microsoft Outlook toolbar. And it offers an auto-management tool that enables group administrators to purchase Skype credits for one account and then distribute them to employees, who can use them for Skype premium services such as SkypeIn, SkypeOut, voice mail and third-party conference calling.

But the latest announcement is targeted at companies that are larger than a small, 10-person operation. These are companies that have already invested in a SIP-based PBX phone system.

While Skype has been successful in the consumer market, it may have a harder time cracking into the business market as there are already several competitors. In addition to traditional IP-based phone systems from companies including Cisco Systems, Microsoft also offers software to connect phone calls to its Office software. And Google recently announced software that allows users to link phone calls to a single number and access voice mail online.

Skype is hoping that its large installed base of users, who are already familiar with the software and the service, will want to use the service at work too.

Still, there are concerns that Skype's service won't provide call quality that is sufficient for business use. There are also concerns about the security of the Skype service, which uses the public Internet for the voice calls.

Skype says that its software is secure. And the company believes that the low-cost service and the new tools it's developing to help business manage the service will appeal to new customers.

Most businesses probably won't get rid of their existing telephone service to use Skype's service, but some may use the Skype service to communicate with employees internally. For example, a company may use Skype to make calls between corporate headquarters and employees who are traveling and using cell phones. Skype could help reduce costs when these traveling employees are overseas or outside their cell phone coverage area.

 

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