Why Skype For Mobile Isn't A Big Deal
By Carlo Longino, Wed Apr 20 22:00:00 GMT 2005

There's widespread perception that Skype clients for mobile phones would cause a seismic shift in the mobile industry. But there's a bit of a disconnect between expectations and reality.

Skype CEO Niklas Zennstrom set the hype wheel in motion again with his comments that the company was working on versions of its VOIP client for several mobile operating systems. While Skype is already available for the Pocket PC platform, many users are clamoring for clients for mobile phones in the hope of bringing "free" VOIP calls to their handsets, saying such a move would lay waste to mobile operators.

Hang on. Before the celebration of the implosion of our carrier friends in their hunt for a new business model, there are a few things to consider.

"Free" on the wired Internet doesn't translate to "free" on mobile. Few wired Net connections are charged on a per-packet basis, while that's still very much the norm for mobile data -- and even many so-called "unlimited" plans have caps that would be difficult to hit with everyday mobile surfing and e-mail, but could be used up by Skype pretty quickly. Skype says its software uses 0-0.5 KBps when idle, or 3-16 KBps when on a call. That's 30 KB per minute when idle or beween 180 and 960 KB per minute on a call -- which on many mobile networks would run up a huge bill quite quickly. Skype already has some wired users concerned about the amount of traffic the client generates, particularly those made "supernodes" in the system's P2P architecture.

Skype itself doesn't seem to see mobile networks as a viable platform, choosing to use Wi-Fi to add to cellular coverage. Its Pocket PC client can only support instant messages over GPRS, not voice, and Zennstrom's comments indicate Wi-Fi is the extent of its "mobile" plans. He presents it as a disruptive force, but the real impact of VoWi-Fi plus cellular remains unclear. The world is no closer to being blanketed with Wi-Fi coverage that's anywhere near the mobile footprint. And having to pay for hotspot access could quickly eat away any savings.

In addition to the benefits of wired Skype not being replicated in mobile, the underlying networks are completely different. Most of today's mobile networks remain voice-centric and circuit-switched. Using VOIP there isn't efficient or cost-effective, and could easily cause problems for operators by chewing up data capacity. Never mind the high latency of mobile networks and their lossy characteristics as well.

But, ultimately, again, it's the carriers left holding the trump card. They won't embrace mobile VOIP until there's a reason for them to do so -- and a way for them to profit from it. High data charges will be deterrent enough for most people, but operators offering flat-rate plans (assuming, of course, they don't have walled gardens) will most certainly block Skype or other applications from being used on their network one way or another. Seriously, when was the last time anybody was able to game a mobile operator for very long?

The fact also remains that Skype and its brethren are niche applications, and interest from some advanced users (albeit a decent number of them) shouldn't be mistaken for widespread interest from average Joes. There are callback systems and other workarounds for people to cut call costs, particularly on international calls. Getting average users to install a piece of software on their handset, get it correctly set up and then open an account with Skype or another provider may be a bit much to ask.