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iSkoot - cool idea for a Skype client for Blackberry, but I don't see me using it much because...

iSkoot provides another Skype client for Blackberry devices... review - and my first reaction is that it has a challenge with the "instant" part of "instant messaging"

NOTE: Please see the updates at the bottom of this post.

imageBack on Monday, Jim Courtney over at Skype Journal IM'd me (on Skype naturally) asking if he could do a test call to me on "another Skype client for the Blackberry". Naturally, I said yes and in a moment or so we were speaking.  It turned out that he was using a new beta application from iSkoot.  From the news release:

The new iSkoot v1.1 delivers a comprehensive mobile Skype experience on BlackBerry: With the click of a button, users can instantly chat with their Skype contacts, make and receive Skype calls, and use SkypeOut™ to inexpensively call regular phone numbers nearly anywhere in the world. iSkoot v1.1 also displays complete Skype contact status information, so BlackBerry users can see which friends, family members and business colleagues are available, as well as manage their own online presence. This latest release features a next generation, easy-to-use interface especially designed for BlackBerry users and will offer additional features soon. iSkoot works without any need for PCs, special hardware, custom phones or Wi-Fi hot spots, and utilizes the existing mobile network infrastructure to route Skype calls through the voice channel.

It sounded interesting and so, of course, I had to try it out as well and finally had a spare moment to do so today.  Now, both Jim and I had commented a month ago about the IM+ Skype client from ShapeServices (my posts first here and then here with a link to Jim's coverage) so that previous experience somewhat colors my own view of the iSkoot application.

The installation was fairly straightforward. I filled out a form on iSkoot's site and was then SMS'd instructions for the download.  I simply opened the link in my Blackberry's browser and proceeded with the install in the normal "over the air" process.  One minor detail was that my Blackberry 7290 was not in the list of supported handsets, but I took a guess that the 7100 binary might work and so I used that (and it seems to work).

Here are some initial positive impressions:

  • Nice user interface - Very nice interface.  Tabs that you can use Alt+wheel to move between for your contacts, online contacts, SkypeOut contacts and chats.
  • Presence worked - I could see the presence of the other Skype users on my contact list.  I didn't try to see what happens when a user changes to see what kind of time delay there may or may not be.
  • Outbound calls worked, although with an annoying step in the process - Move to a Skype contact and push your thumbwheel twice to call.  (Or push it once to see your options.) The call then starts by initiating a regular mobile call from your Blackberry to a phone number in Massachusetts (for me).  It then seems to call the other person on Skype and connect you through the gateway at iSkoot.  The annoying step was that when I first initiate a call, my Blackberry throws up a menu saying that an application is requesting to make a call and do I want to allow it, with the default being No. I therefore have to scroll up and press my thumbwheel again.  It's a pain and I couldn't find a way to remove that request.  I don't remember having to do that step in the IM+ client (and my trial has expired).  In any event, once the calls were connected, the audio quality sounded fine on both ends.
  • Chats worked, and alerted you to new chats - Easy to initiate chats. Nice list of current chats.  If a new chat is opened up with you, you get a notification and can open it up.  If there are new messages in existing chats, you get notified of those as well.
  • No conference call appearance - Unlike the IM+ client, your call just appears as a regular Skype call.  In fact, there was really no way for me to know Jim was not calling me from his regular Skype client.  With the IM+ client, you wound up getting put into a conf call with the other recipient which just seemed a bit strange.

Realizing it is still in beta (like, it seems, most everything on the net these days), here are some negative impressions:

  • No support for groupchats - Using the Skype 3.2/3.5beta clients, I'm accustomed to having several public groupchat windows open.  Unfortunately, groupchats are not supported per the FAQ, and my public groupchats did not appear.  This does work in the IM+ client, so score 1 for IM+.
  • Very slow updates to chats - In our experiment today, Jim Courtney and I both had Skype running on our PCs and so we could see our chat messages in a chat window there as well.  There were times when it took 5-10 minutes for messages typed in the PC chat window to appear in the iSkoot window!  Given that this is supposedly instant messaging, such a delay was hard to fathom.  Now there is a "Refresh Now" choice in the menu which could force a refresh, but the normal process seemed to have some kind of refresh interval.  Not all the time.  Sometimes messages appeared right away... but other times there was as much as a 10-minute delay before seeing the other message.  Hopefully this is just a scaling issue as iSkoot deals with their release!
  • Slow call initiation process - Forgetting about my annoying Blackberry question I had to answer, the whole process of initiating the call seemed to take longer than the IM+ client did.  I'd have to purchase IM+ to actually test the timing, but the iSkoot process just seemed slower.
  • Status did not have DND/Busy - Curiously, you can change your status in the iSkoot client, but you only have the choices of: Online, Away, Not Available and Invisible.  One of the ones I use often is "Do Not Disturb", so that I'm not disturbed.  That choice isn't here.  Perhaps the assumption is that you'll just exit the application.
  • You can't receive Skype calls if you have Skype Voicemail enabled - Per the FAQ.  Not entirely sure why but this seems to be a bit of a headache if you this is not your only Skype client.  I also have Skype on my PC and if I am not there, I'd prefer to have the call go to voicemail.  Since I'm mostly looking to use this for Skype chats and Skype outbound calls, I don't expect it to be a big deal for me (I'll leave voicemail on) but I could see it being a pain if I did want to receive calls.
  • You still have to give over your Skype password - As with IM+, you have to provide iSkoot with your Skype username and password and then they log in as you from their server/gateway.  As a commenter pointed out, there is a basic problem here that with your Skype account being connected to your PayPal account which in turn is connected to your bank account, you are potentially letting someone you don't know have access ultimately to your bank account.  Do you trust iSkoot (or anyone else) enough?  On the other hand, I'm not sure how any of these services can really work if you do not provide that information.  (See update below.)

All in all, it's an interesting entry into the idea of taking Skype onto a mobile phone.  As I have time I'll keep experimenting with it over the next few weeks... I could see it be especially useful if you were travelling (which, for better or worse, I'm not doing).

As I'll write up in another post, the one interesting use for me was that I could see Twitter and Facebook updates appearing in a Skype chat window and could post Twitter updates (without using the SMS interface)... which was an interesting experience.

In the meantime, if you are a Blackberry and Skype user and want to experiment, you can head over to iSkoot.com and try it out.


UPDATE #1 - 11 Jul 07: Jim Courtney IM'd me with the following comment on the Skype<->PayPal linkage:

btw, I investigated re the PayPal access issue. To do anything meaningful you need to log into PayPal as well. Also PayPal would not allow a process that was open to abuse. All you can buy automatically are voice mail, SkypeIn, SkypeOut and even there you can put on a daily limit as low as $50. And my PayPal password is definitely not my Skype pwd.

UPDATE #2 - 3 Aug 07: Jacqueline Van Meter with iSkoot Product Management has responded in a comment to my later post about iSkoot, addressing a number of the concerns I raised here. 

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