VoIP on the Move: WebMessenger Mobile for Skype

WebMessenger recently announced the release of WebMessenger Mobile for Skype, a service that allows users to access their Skype accounts using their mobile phones. The service supports a full set of Skype features, including real-time presence information, chat, and voice calls.

Company chief marketing officer Joe Naylor says this is part of a larger plan WebMessenger initiated in 2000 to develop a comprehensive presence platform for both instant messaging (IM) and voice. For mobile IM, the company now has clients available for a wide range of mobile platforms, including Palm, BlackBerry, Symbian, and Windows Mobile 5.0. “Using our mobile IM client, you have access to all the different IM networks,” Naylor says.

WebMessenger Mobile for Skype, Naylor says, extends similar functionality to voice. “You’re no longer tethered to your desktop,” he says. “You can actually see presence and chat with your Skype buddies, you can initiate calls by simply clicking on them, and you can receive calls through your Skype account to your mobile device.”

While Skype is generally seen as a consumer solution, not an enterprise one, Naylor says WebMessenger has always assumed that a significant percentage of business users also use the service. “And two weeks into this launch, our assumptions were validated, because by far the largest number of downloads and registrations we’ve received are for the BlackBerry, which of course is primarily enterprise users,” he says.

VoIP over cellular
Still, WebMessenger Mobile for Skype isn’t a standalone Skype client on your mobile phone—Naylor says Skype currently doesn’t offer an API that would enable that. Instead, the user installs a desktop client on their PC in addition to the client on their mobile phone—the two clients then interact in order to access the user’s desktop Skype client via their mobile phone.

Sound confusing? The process works as follows. The mobile client sends a request to the PC client to initiate a phone call—the PC client then makes a SkypeOut call back to the mobile number to start the call, and from there, the client initiates the call to the other party. It’s a somewhat convoluted setup, but Naylor says it’s the only option for now. “We’re doing everything we can to work with Skype to eventually roll out a product that does not require a desktop implementation,” he says.

The disadvantages of the current setup are that the user’s home or office PC has to be on and online in order for the mobile phone to use Skype, and the user is still charged for the incoming voice minutes when the PC connects to their mobile phone. The advantage is that, since it’s a voice call and not a data link, it can work over any cellular connection, not just a high speed one.

And in spite of any limitations, Naylor says the immediate response to the new offering has been impressive. “We’ve had quite a bit of uptake on this so far,” he says. “Within the first week, we’re on pace for more of our Mobile Messenger for Skype clients than all of our other products combined.”

The next step for voice
There are two versions of Mobile Messenger for Skype available—a free version, which allows users to keep track of up to 20 buddies, make person-to-person calls, initiate chat sessions, and view real-time presence information—and a paid version for $3.95 a month, which supports an unlimited number of buddies and enables conference calls between up to four participants.

Next, Naylor says, WebMessenger will be expanding beyond Skype. “We have SIP compatibility as well, and so we’re going to be rolling out similar capabilities for various SIP-enabled networks and telephony systems,” he says. “On the enterprise side, we’re close partners with IBM—in fact, they deploy our mobile client internally as the extension to Lotus Sametime on the desktop.”

The release of Lotus Sametime 7.5 this fall, Naylor says, will add a full set of voice capabilities. “They’ll have click-to-call and Web conferencing, all tied into various telephony systems from Avaya, Siemens, Nortel, and so forth—and all of those are SIP-compliant systems as well, so we can provide that same capability out to the mobile device for them,” he says.

Looking forward, Naylor says the plan is to offer a mobile VoIP platform that’s as flexible as WebMessenger’s current mobile IM platform: Log in, tell the device which service you want to use, and then “boom, you have the voice capabilities on that device, extended from whatever systems you happen to be using,” he says.

Mobile operators, Naylor says, need to understand that this is the inevitable next step for the industry. “We don’t completely fly in their face, because there are the inbound minutes back to the cell phone, but it’s going to be interesting to see how they respond to this change in the market over the next year or two,” he says.

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