Mainstream telepresence is something I've been writing about for a while. Amazingly while it has grown significantly, still many businesses don't utilize the tool for communications internally or with customers. That will surely change as travel costs continue to rise and the technology goes more mainstream.
In keeping with the continual evolution of video conference calling, Geoff Fowler of the WSJ just reported that Skype unveiled a new group video chat service and subscription plans, as it builds out its strategy of offering a free service that makes money by charging for extras.
As Mr. Fowler wrote, Skype will next week launch a free trial of an upgrade to its PC-based calling software that lets up to five people make a video call at the same time. The trial will be free, but the company will begin charging for the group feature — one of its users' biggest requests — later in the summer. Video calling is the Internet company's fastest-growing service, it said, accounting for one third of all calls.
Skype also unveiled new paid subscription plans that allow people to make calls to cellphones and landlines in 170 countries. That feature particularly targets those who make calls into developing nations, where the cost of making calls through traditional carriers can still be quite high, said Neil Stevens, general manager of Skype's consumer business segment.
"A very large percentage of our revenue and growth can come from having products to call cost-effectively to the long tail" of cellphones in the developing world, he said.
Skype, which has helped pioneer Internet calls, has offered the service free for years and says it now has more than 560 million users world-wide.
EBay Inc. last year sold controlling interest in Skype to a group of investors that includes its founders.
Mr. Stevens said the company also plans to focus on getting Skype on more devices beyond computers, such as cellphones. Skype has been installed on 12 million of Apple Inc.'s iPhone and iPod Touch devices, and the company will in the months ahead come out with a new version of its software that enables people to make free Skype calls over the 3G cellular data plans used by iPhones. Currently, it works only on iPhones through Wi-Fi data connections.
Mr. Stevens said Skype is also working on an app for Apple's iPad for release over the summer. When Apple releases a new version of its mobile operating system in the coming weeks, Skype will also be able to run as a background app, allowing people to receive calls even as they do other things.
Mr. Stevens said Skype would like to be able to also provide video calling on smart phones, but has a number of technological hurdles to clear first, such as the high bandwidth required by video calls. Apple's mobile software currently doesn't allow developers to access a device's built-in camera, he noted.
Skype is also experimenting with advertising for revenue. In Europe, it has tried a click-to-call service with a directories company, where an advertiser pays for a call that a potential customer can make for free.