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Posts from January 2009

Skype 2.8 Beta for Mac OS X provides screen sharing, WiFi access, chat features and Twitter-like mood messages

UPDATE: Skype 2.8 Beta for Mac OS X is now available for download.

UPDATE #2: The 2.8 Beta also includes some experimental support for linking Skype mood messages to Twitter.

skype_logo.pngTonight out at the "ShowStoppers" event at MacWorld in San Francisco, Skype announced the new 2.8 Beta for Mac OS X. The new version will apparently be available for download tomorrow, January 6, 2009, from Skype's website. [NOTE: I will update this post with the download link when it becomes available.]

Continuing Skype's rather fragmented product strategy, they have rolled out some new features in this 2.8 beta release that will at least stop us Mac users from whining about Windows users always getting the good stuff first. Here's the quick list of what Skype notes is in this release:

  • Skype Access
  • Screen Sharing
  • Improved chat management: ability to sort chats in the drawer and set priorities to chats
  • Quick Add: much easier to add people to chats
  • Mood message chat: mood message updates from your friends as chat messages
  • Large avatars: 256x256 pixels
  • Hidden avatars in incoming contact requests
  • Ability to add your own notes to contacts

Courtesy of Skype's PR team, I've had a chance to play with the 2.8 beta for a couple of weeks and have these thoughts below...


Probably the largest "new" feature is "Skype Access", a service that lets you go to any of the 100,000 Boingo WiFi hotspots and - using Skype - connect to the Boingo hotspot. When you connect, you pay on a per-minute basis and the fee (roughly 20 cents per minute) is deducted from your Skype Credit. You do not have to pay the Boingo monthly fee. You do not have to pay any hourly or daily fees.

Judging from the news release and pre-release info, Skype is immensely proud of this feature but I will be honest and say it does little for me. I just don't use WiFi hotspots as much while traveling (especially now that I'm paying for a wireless broadband adapter). However, I can see how this could be of value. If all you wanted to do was crack open your Mac and send some email, this gives you a great way to do that on a per-minute basis. If I were a heavy user of WiFi hotspots, I'd want to do the math to figure out if it would just be cheaper to buy a monthly Boingo access.

Regardless, it's an interesting move for Skype to get into the business of connecting you to Internet access.


The coolest feature of the 2.8 beta is a "screensharing" feature where you can share either your entire screen or just a portion of your screen with the Skype user on the other end. Now, this works with all other versions of Skype because it replaces your video stream with the screen sharing. So a Mac Skype user can share their screen with Windows and Linux users.... which is pretty cool.

It's hard to show in a blog post, but if you watch my screencast about the 2.8 beta, you can see it in action:

You can share either your entire desktop or just a section of your screen. You can also resize the section you are sharing while you are in the middle of sharing. When you stop sharing, you just flip back to showing your video.


By far the most useful feature I've found in the 2.8 beta is the ability to set the "priority" of a chat session - and then sort your chat sessions by priority in the Mac's "drawer" way of displaying chat sessions. I can just control-click a chat (either a private or public chat) and then go down to the "Set Priority" menu choice:


You can then sort the chats based on their priority using the drop-down menu at the top of the "drawer":


You can also sort based on title or date. Personally I've found the Sort by Priority to be very useful when you have, as I do, a zillion chats open at any one time. (And yes, I report to RJ, our CTO, so his chat gets the highest priority! ;-) )


Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the 2.8 beta is the new "Mood Messages" pseudo-chat that you can enable in the Advanced part of the Skype Preferences:


Once you enable the "Mood Message Chat", you get a new chat window that opens up that shows you the mood messages of all of your contacts:


It also very nicely lets you set your mood message simply by typing in the window as you would to any other chat window. This is quite nice for someone like me who almost never changes my mood message in the regular window.

This actually makes Skype mood messages useful to me.

However, because of that other option that says "Show iTunes song in my mood message", you rapidly wind up seeing that a whole lot of people have that option checked and your Mood Message Chat rapidly fills with updates of music people listen to. What if you don't want to see their updates? Well, Skype has made it so that you can "follow" updates from your contacts through a simple menu choice:


The down side here is that if you enable the Mood Message Chat, you are following all your contacts by default and have to go through and "unfollow" (i.e. uncheck the menu choice) people you don't want to follow. It would be great if Skype had a "follow by default" or a "stop following all contacts" choice... something along those lines to let you control who you are following.

The intriguing aspect here is that this enables you to turn Skype mood messages into the kind of status updates that you typically have in Twitter, Facebook, or any of the other zillion services offering status updates. The great thing here is that it is simply another Skype chat window like all your other chats. (Of course, you can get a Skype chat for Twitter using "twitter4skype", but this is now with Skype mood messages.)

I think, though, for it to reach any kind of real usage, you need more people to enable this feature (it is off by default) and actually start using it - and for that it also needs to be on more platforms.

[As a tease, I'll mention that there is a way to integrate this mood message chat with Twitter, so anything I type there also shows up in my Twitter stream... but I'll write about that in a separate blog post as it's not directly tied to the 2.8 beta release. Soon...]


Another nice feature is the ability to quickly add someone to a chat through a button at the top of the chat window. You click on the window and start typing in a contact's name:


Before you could always drag-and-drop a contact from your main Skype window into a chat, but now you can use this quick add button. It is particularly useful if you have a large number of Skype contacts.


Another useful feature is the ability to add private notes to each of your Contacts. So you could store information about how you know the person... their interests... basically anything you want as it is a free-form text field:


What's not yet clear to me is where these notes are stored. Are they accessible through multiple Skype clients if you were logged in on multiple machines? Or are they tied to the machine where you create the Notes? I'm guessing that they are stored with the local client like chat histories are.... but I'd need to have multiple installations of the 2.8 beta to really know this.


Skype also added a few other features:

  • New set of icons
  • Large avatars: You can now have images up to 256x256 pixels in size.
  • Hidden avatars in incoming contact requests - so you aren't exposed to images that might be offensive.

There are undoubtedly other features that we'll find as we work with it more.


So with this 2.8 Beta for Mac OS X, Skype provides some interesting new capabilities. I can see the screen sharing being quite useful to show people what's on my screen. The chat prioritization is great for heavy chat users like me. The possibilities of actually making the Mood Messages useful intrigue me. Frequent WiFi hotspot users may find the Skype Access feature useful and economical.

All in all, it's a great evolution of the Skype client for Mac OS X.

I do wish, though, as I've discussed before, that Skype's product strategy weren't so fragmented. Sure, as a Mac user, it's fun for a few minutes to have some features that Windows users don't have... but that fun rapidly fades when I can share my desktop with a Windows user but they can't share their's. And they almost never use the Mood Messages because it's not convenient to do so.

Perhaps most annoyingly, I am currently in a position where I am helping some Windows users get started with Skype and so I'm trying to help them with their Skype client... when mine is markedly different. It's a frustrating experience. I do hope Skype's new management can help converge the product streams so that the user experience (and technical support experience) is closer between platforms (while, yes, acknowledging that platforms have UI/behavior differences). We'll see.

In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy using this new beta on my Mac and seeing what else might be inside the release.

Again, Skype indicates that the 2.8 beta will be available tomorrow, January 6, 2009, for download for Mac OS X users.

I'll look forward to reading what you all think...

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Define "VoIP" - and then we can debate whether it is dead!

There is a fundamental problem with the "VoIP is dead" debate continuing to rage across the VoIP/communications part of the blogosphere (see Alec Saunders part 1 and part 2, Jon Arnold, Andy Abramson, Ken Camp, Jeff Pulver part 1 and part 2, Om Malik, Shidan Gouran, Ted Wallingford, Dameon Welch-Abernathy (PhoneBoy), Rich Tehrani and a zillion others...)

Aswath Rao and Luca Filigheddu came closest to the mark in their posts. The fundamental problem with this entire debate is simply this:

Define "VoIP"?

As I discussed in an Emerging Tech Talk video podcast I put up this morning, there are a range of definitions you could give to "VoIP", including, but not limited to, the following:

  1. The underlying infrastructure, a.k.a. the "plumbing" - the mechanisms, protocols, etc. that are used for the transport of voice/video/etc. over IP. Things like SIP, H.323, RTP, various codecs, etc.

  2. Consumer "PSTN line replacement" services - Offerings like those of Vonage and so many others where the basic idea is that you can get cheaper telephone charges by going over the Internet and getting rid of your local landline. Also called "pure play" VoIP by some or "VoIP arbitrage" by others.

  3. Computer-to-computer/softphone offerings, often coming from the IM space - Skype sets the bar here, but there's a host of other players as well, including Gizmo, GoogleTalk, FWD, and many others. Some of these came from existing Instant Messaging services that simply added voice.

  4. Enterprise IP-PBX/"Unified Communications" solutions - Communications systems used by enterprises, large and small - what has traditionally been called the "PBX" but that term is increasingly meaningless given the range of options now being provided.

  5. The *entire* vision of rich communication over IP - The whole picture... everything over IP... voice, video, IM, presence, file/data sharing... the whole rich communication experience.

Each and every one of these is referred to as "VoIP" by some segment of our industry. (And there's even more... I did have someone once reply to me that "VoIP" was the pre-paid calling cards that you can buy in convenience stores, etc. (And in truth, they usually do get their cheap rates by using VoIP for transport somewhere in there.))

The point is that we need to be a bit more precise in what we call "VoIP" before we can argue about whether it is alive or not.

From my point-of-view, the life and death of these different definitions of "VoIP" varies:

  1. The underlying infrastructure - Doing extremely well... in fact, so well, that it's fading into the background and just being part of our underlying network infrastructure, both in the fixed and mobile environments. (Which also argues that some of the VoIP-infrastructure-specific products/services are no longer quite as necessary.)

  2. Consumer "PSTN line replacement" services - Great for cable companies; not so good for pure-plays - Looked at Vonage's stock price lately? They and so many of the other companies whose only real selling point was "get cheaper phone calls with us" are certainly struggling or dying. Why? The cable companies, for one, are cleaning up in this space with their "triple-play" bundling of voice with Internet access and television. The pure-play companies may be cheaper on voice but the cable packages may be far more compelling. Add in the "unlimited calling" mobile phone plans we have here in North America, plus the softphone players like Skype plus some of the emerging cloud/hosted offerings... and all-in-all it's not a pretty picture for Vonage and friends. (And this is really the VoIP "industry" to which Alec was referring.)

  3. Computer-to-computer/softphone offerings - Very alive - Skype is flirting with 15 million simultaneous online users and also reporting decent income, Gizmo is rolling out a Flash-based softphone to remove the need for a client, TringMe is providing widgets to various folks... and a whole range of others are growing. (While some players are shrinking here, too, of course.)

  4. Enterprise IP-PBX/"Unified Communications" solutions - Very alive - Basically every vendor supplying communications systems to enterprises are now doing so over IP. No one is selling traditional TDM PBXs anymore. Players in this space include the traditional telephony players like Nortel, Avaya, Siemens, Mitel, Alcatel-Lucent, along with newer entrants like the dominant Cisco, ShoreTel, Digium/Asterisk and then even newer entrants like Microsoft OCS and IBM Sametime.

  5. The *entire* vision of rich communication over IP - VERY alive! - In fact, I'd say that the next few years will be one of the most fascinating years in this space. We're at this amazing intersection of insane amounts of local bandwidth and computing power, increasingly ubiquitous powerful mobile devices, and incredible power out "in the cloud". All around us we are building the massive IP communications interconnect. It's happening. At a glacial pace in some areas and at a crazy pace in others. We're layering on applications and services. We're making them available through simple APIs and mashups. We're all collectively doing some pretty amazing things out there. It's a great time to be in this space!

So how do you define VoIP?

If you think of "VoIP" as my #2, the "cheap telephony consumer services", then sure, if you don't consider the cable companies then than sector isn't doing too well. If you define VoIP as one of the other definitions here, well, then in my view it is very much alive.

What do you think? How do you define "VoIP"?

P.S. If you'd like to join a number of us to discuss this topic, Sheryl Breuker and Ken Camp are hosting a conference call tonight at 9pm US Eastern / 6pm US Pacific. Join us... it should be fun. :-)

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