Today I discovered, on Robyn Tippins’ excellent Sleepy Blogger blog, her Skype Releases Conferencing post about Skype’s new Skypecast conferencing system. Robyn is a valued colleague and a co-moderator with me on the LinkedIn Bloggers group, and a very articulate commentator on blogging, social networking and ‘Web 2.0’ generally.

I’m a big fan of Skype, the basically free Internet phone (VoIP) system that enables millions of people around the world with a broadband connection to communicate effectively without incurring any cost other than what we’ve already paid for our Internet connection.

A special advantage, from my point of view, is that I can see when people I want to talk with are online and that saves a lot of fiddling around and confusion about timezones. For phone calls with people in North America especially, it’s problematic enough that I’m not in any of their timezones “from sea to shining sea”, I’m often some time in the next day! A standing joke question is “So how’s the weather looking tomorrow, Des?”

And a nice Skype service, from my point of view, is that I can and do have a phone number in the USA, so people there who want to call me can do so on a real phone number with an easily identifiable prefix – (415) 922 4787 (San Francisco prefix if you are wondering) – rather than on an unfamiliar international number. And with that “SkypeIn” phone number I get free voicemail. That whole service now costs about US$50 a year, which I think is pretty neat. You can get other numbers and I noted in the Australian media a couple of days ago a report that Skype is now providing Australian capital city numbers on a similar deal. So, for example, an American company doing business in Australia could have a Sydney or other city number – or several – a more economical proposition than having a paid answering service or serviced office arrangement. If your business can tolerate a next day call back, this is surely revolutionary in terms of doing business globally. For a few hundred dollars a year you could have a “presence” in cities around the world.

I’m also about to sign up for SkypeOut, where I will be paying for credits to make phone calls from my computer to regular phone numbers, at a very economical rate. I will be using that for international interviews for a podcasting program on business blogging, which I am soon to host.

So yes, I am a big Skype fan. I have to say however that there is a drawback with Skype, or at least there has been from time to time, when calls get scrambled. While I have had many Skype conversations where the person I’m speaking with could be in the same room, as it were, rather than in fact on the other side of the world, regrettably there have been a few conversations where the line quality was so bad we had to hang up and go back to the regular, paid telephone service. Robyn mentions similar experiences. So I am reluctant to rely on Skype for ‘mission-critical’ calls, say in doing a presentation for new business and I’m not cancelling the regular phone service just yet.

But those bad experiences are very much the exception and I’m sure the level of consistent reliability will improve.

I have previously used Skype for three-way conversations and those have been fine, but for any number above three the quality has gone seriously downhill. So I am both delighted and a little wary that Skype now claims that you can have up to a hundred on a call with Skypecasts. Of course, people will have to get themselves a Skype account and headphones and I do find that for some people this seems a big challenge.

Maybe some people have bad memories of the early days of Skype before we figured out how to stop having strange people from another country suddenly wanting to talk to us. Perhaps also some people think headphone sets have to be expensive, but I have perfectly good conversations with people across the world, using headphones that cost around $12. If you have been through the trial of being on a Skype call with someone relying on their computer microphone and speakers you will know why headphones are a necessity – I don’t understand all the acoustic theory, but I know what I hear.

So I see a few challenges of perception and logistics, and possibly of confidence in consistent quality of service, when it comes to organising teleconferences on Skype, but I am keen to test the Skypecasts system and will write about that here.

And yes, this post is part of our weekly “Blog Boost” project for the LinkedIn Bloggers group.

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