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Service lets Skype users chat on cell phones

With Eqo, Skype users can connect over mobile phones--but unlike traditional calling, the service uses buddy lists.

PHOENIX--For the tens of millions of Skype users worldwide, making calls over the Internet is a free or cheap experience that has the AT&Ts and Verizons of the world wondering how they're going to keep up.

But with the exception of Skype's phone that can connect to Wi-Fi networks, the service's members have been tied to their computers and thus to limited locations.

On Tuesday, Eqo Communications, a Vancouver, British Columbia, start-up, launched its mobile Internet phone service, a package that allows Skype users to talk to each other via cell phones.

But unlike traditional calling, which requires the use of phone numbers--and also means that once you give your number to people, they will always be able to reach you--Eqo is built around the idea of letting people reach out to each other via identities, or buddy lists.

The idea, said CEO Bill Tam, is that people sometimes want to be able to connect with each other, especially when they don't know each other that well, without giving out something so personal as a phone number.

Thus, Eqo allows users to tell when people on their Skype buddy lists are available, and if so, to call them directly on their mobile phones, so long as the phone has support for Sun Microsystems' Java 2 Platform, Micro Edition (J2ME). That means, Tam said, that for now, Eqo won't work on services like Verizon Wireless, which uses BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) to run dynamic applications.

"Skype took a buddy list-centric view of how communities work," said Tam, "with names rather than numbers. It's an example of how to take (lessons) of instant messaging and apply it to voice."

Essentially, he said, using buddy list names means that Skype users can decide who they want to be able to contact them, and make changes to their buddy lists at any time. And therefore, they can feel comfortable knowing that only people they want to hear from will be able to call them.

In any case, when a Skype user wants to call others using Eqo, he or she looks to see if they're available and then initiates the call. The other person gets a notification that a call is incoming, which also lets him or her choose whether to accept the call.

For now, Eqo's service is available only on Skype. But the company promises that its partnership with Skype is just the beginning; it plans to partner with any number of social services, among them dating sites, social-networking services like LinkedIn or MySpace, and even the America Onlines of the world.

Tam explained that Eqo hopes to convince those services--as it has Skype--that it offers a revenue-generating technology that can bridge the gap between online communities' users by enabling them to talk to each other regardless of where they are. The idea is that people will pay a fee for the ability to communicate with each other, always using buddy lists or online identities via their cell phones.

In the meantime, Tam said, Eqo isn't working with mobile carriers. But he explained that the company hopes to demonstrate, with its Skype partnership and later deals with other services, that it can play a crucial role in the mobile ecosystem. And thus, Eqo hopes that it will convince carriers that it could be valuable to them in the future.