Skype conferencing upgrade

* New third party service illustrates the changing nature of telephony

Last September I talked about how businesses use Skype for free teleconferencing in "Another IM-VoIP Advantage." Limitations in Skype conferencing include a maximum of five total users, only one of which can be a SkypeOut user (someone you reach through a traditional telephone number). Those who typically conference five or fewer folks can take advantage of the option, but many people would like to have nine or ninety on their calls. Right now, they're out of luck, but not for long.

Vapps, makes audio conferencing systems, and it has joined the Skype developer program and upgraded Skype conferencing capabilities. The public rollout will be Jan. 19.

I spoke with Vapps CEO Ben Lilienthal about the product and his plans. Using the company’s teleconferencing equipment, Vapps can support up to 1,000 concurrent users, but the press release puts a limit of 500 on a conference call.

Teleconferences over Skype work the same as traditional ones. Call the number (or click the Skype contact) and put in the passcode to join the conference, which is the High Speed conference option. Vapps offers a Get Personal option that assigns you a specific conference passcode you keep and can embed in your Skype contact profile. Once saved, one click calls in to the conference and connects you directly to your pre-assigned conference "room."

Readers in Great Britain can use the service as well. Since Skype's European users far outnumber their U.S. user base, I expect Vapps may expand across the European union.

One reason Skype limits conferences to five users? Bandwidth. The initiating Skype client must make all those connections and keep them running. That means the client needs a fair amount of upstream bandwidth and plenty of computer horsepower.

Vapps shifts the primary client workload to its network and its conferencing equipment, allowing hundreds of Skype and regular telephone users to connect to a conference call. The basic service is free, although Skype users must pay the SkypeOut charge of about 2 cents per minute for connections to non-Skype users. In the U.S., traditional telephone users call a specific number and pay nothing beyond their long-distance charges.

Traditional teleconferencing services usually charge a setup fee and anywhere from 5 cents to 50 cents per user per minute. Being computer based, Skype connections can be linked into a conference without operator intervention. Vapps offers upgraded services for a bit of extra money, including Web-based controls over the conference.

Web based controls for telephone equipment? Traditional telephone equipment offered a user interface that made hieroglyphics look good by comparison. If moving voice calls to the Internet does nothing more than provide understandable control interfaces for voice connection controls, we'll be ahead.

It makes sense for Skype to partner with Vapps and similar companies who know more about corporate markets than the Skype folks. I believe this service is the first of what will be hundreds of new products leveraging VoIP flexibility from Skype and others to enhance telephone calls. Vapps provides an interesting product, and I believe 2006 will bulge with new communication services leveraging the convergence of telephones, computers, mobile devices, and wireless networks of all kinds.

Skype walks a delicate line. On one hand, its Web site says right upfront Skype is not a traditional telephone service replacement and can't be used for emergency dialing. On the other hand Skype wants to expand and worm its way into the business market. Partnerships like the one it now has with Vapps will make Skype palatable to businesses that may not trust the Skype peer-to-peer network for serious communications.

Leveraging the teleconferencing expertise of Vapps may let Skype reach businesses they never would before. The combination drops teleconferencing prices far below the competition, making it possible for smaller businesses to teleconference just like the big guys without spending big money.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Related:
Now read: Getting grounded in IoT