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Skype targets mainstream consumers

Skype announces products to make its free Internet phone service more attractive to the mainstream.

Skype is making a play for the mainstream IP telephony market with a series of new products being announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.

The company, which provides free calling from computer to computer over the Internet, announced on Tuesday several new products developed through partnerships with consumer electronics manufacturers to make it easier for people to use its Internet phone service. It also announced a new service it is launching with Kodak that combines live voice conversations and photo sharing.

The new products Skype announced at CES are designed to make the company more competitive with traditional phone services and other voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, services such as Vonage. New cordless phones will enable users to wander away from their desktops, and new adapters should make it easier for consumers to switch between ordinary landline telephone calls and those that travel over the Internet.

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Skype's push to make its service more appealing to the mainstream public is a necessity, analysts say. The company, bought last year by eBay for between $2.5 billion and $4 billion, has more than 70 million registered users but needs to expand its market. It has already been making strides in the consumer market with a deal announced in November to sell Skype starter kits in RadioShack stores.

"If they were only going to do PC-to-PC voice calling, they'd only get a small piece of the overall VoIP market," said Lisa Pierce, research fellow at Forrester Research. "And quite frankly, that wouldn't be worth it, considering how much eBay paid for them (Skype). They have to offer more universal services in order to build awareness and acceptance of their services."

Specifically, Skype announced that it has developed a new standalone handset to enable users to make free Skype calls over the Internet without a PC connection. It also announced a new phone adapter developed with D-Link, called the DPH-50U, that allows the Skype service to be used with a traditional phone.

Ipevo, which already makes several Skype-enabled handsets, has also developed a new cordless handset and speaker phone to be used with Skype. And the company announced that Panasonic has also developed a cordless phone that works with its service, allowing users to make and receive Skype calls and traditional calls on the same device.

Skype is expected to make another announcement with home networking equipment maker Netgear on Wednesday.

The company also said it is testing a new service with Kodak that allows people to create a narrated photo album from Kodak's EasyShare Gallery. After creating an album by selecting photos in the gallery, users can call friends using the Skype service to simultaneously watch the slideshow live.