Skype expands business offerings

* Skype Version 3.0

VoIP provider Skype is expanding its offerings for business customers with new tools that make it easier for network administrators to control how Skype performs on a corporate network.

Skype Version 3.0 supports Microsoft Windows Installer for easier installation on multiple computers. Skype also has a business control panel and features plug-ins for third-party developers to integrate their software with Skype.

Skype also is offering a special guide for network administrators that details how Skype works and how to manage the software in an enterprise environment.

Skype allows users to place free telephone calls over the Internet anywhere in the world. It also supports group chat, video conferencing, conference calls and file transfer.

Although designed for consumers, Skype is finding its way into more small businesses. Among Skype users are frequent travelers, remote offices and telecommuters.

"When we launched Skype four years ago, it was just software that people could download on their PCs," says Michael Jackson, vice president of paid services for Skype. "What we found is that a lot of people wanted to use it at work as well for keeping in contact with their workgroups. These people were taking it into the business environment, and network administrators were unsure about the use of Skype in an enterprise network."

The latest version of Skype allows network administrators to control how the software handles file transfers without breaking down their network perimeter security. Network administrators also can control how much bandwidth Skype uses, and they can set which Internet port the software accesses.

The new administrative features are free with the latest version of Skype.

"This announcement is about making sure that Skype can run on enterprise networks and be a good corporate citizen on those networks," Jackson says. "We estimate that 30% of our customers are business users."

One company that’s using Skype is Butterfield & Robinson, a Toronto firm that coordinates high-end biking and walking trips. Butterfield & Robinson has 90 employees in Toronto and between 100 and 150 freelance guides and researchers around the world.

"We depend on a lot of people who work remotely, far from our offices," says Benson Cowan, president of Butterfield & Robinson. "Skype is one of their primary means of interfacing with our office."

Butterfield & Robinson switched to Skype a year ago.

"We are a very young company," Cowan says. "A lot of our guides and researchers are in their early-to-mid 20s. A few of them were starting to use Skype regularly in their personal lives, and they wanted to use it at work."

Cowan says Skype is helping employees located in different time zones to communicate easier and more frequently. Employees especially like the chat and conferencing features of the software.

"Skype has completely changed the way we communicate," he says. "It’s not just that it saved us money in terms of long-distance costs, but it has encouraged people to stay in touch with each other and to talk more regularly."

Cowan says Skype is easy for employees to learn and requires no support from the company’s IT staff.

"We’ve basically kept it out of the hands of our IT group," Cowan says. "Over the past two to three years, we’ve introduced a lot of new systemwide applications and none has been as easy on the company or as accepted by the organization as Skype."

Version 3.0 has been available since December, and Skype is experiencing around 200,000 downloads per day of the software.

Next up for Skype is a plan to offer more business-oriented features with its standard software. Skype also plans to integrate with other software that provides more advanced document sharing and Web conferencing applications.

"Now that we have a very large user base – 17 million registered users – it’s worth people developing software around that base," Jackson says.

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