Build Richer Remote Relationships; or, Why I Like Skype
by Steve O’Keefe
If you are involved in a publishing operation—or in publishing support services, such as graphic design, editing, packaging, marketing, law, or even accounting—chances are you do a fair amount of work with offsite colleagues. A new breed of Internet-based software is raising the productivity of these remote relationships as never before. One of these new tools is the Internet communications software package known as Skype.
Many publishers are already familiar with Skype. I’ve been testing the software for several years, ever since a European client insisted I get it. At this moment, it has roughly 3 million installed users.
In the Beginning
Skype was founded in Switzerland, and Europeans were early adopters. The free Internet voice-calling feature appealed to them as a way of avoiding high phone rates on calls across nearby borders, and when word got out that you could call anywhere in the world free using your computer, a headset, and a high-speed Internet connection, many people around the world who had previously spent enormous sums calling exotic places switched to Skype.
I recall seeing cab drivers in New York huddled around a laptop in the back of a single cab. No, they weren’t looking up directions on MapQuest—they were taking turns using Skype and a nearby, unguarded high-speed Internet hotspot to call home.
In 2005, eBay bought Skype for some $2.8 billion. You might have heard recently that eBay announced a $1.4 billion markdown on Skype, but it barely dented eBay’s stock price.
For Skype, providing free, reliable phone service to the planet has not proven to be a moneymaker; but in the past two years, Skype has steadily improved. Now it penetrates our office to the point where we can’t imagine working without it. Indeed, we now request that our clients install Skype, and we keep a large supply of $40 USB headsets around to send to authors and suppliers to speed their use of it. The software is free to download, install, and use. And you don’t need a headset with a computer that has a built-in microphone and speakers. It’s absolutely 100 percent free phone service.
The Most Compelling Pluses
Skype’s most-used feature is free Internet voice calling. As of today, you can call anyone with a Skype user ID for free. For a nominal fee, you can dial regular phone numbers right from Skype. For a separate fee, you can get a phone number from Skype to receive incoming phone calls over your computer.
With Skype, your laptop quickly becomes a mobile phone. You have one-click dialing to anyone in your electronic address book. You can drag contacts from the address book into a group audio conference call, press a button, and phone everybody all at once.
You can IM anyone in your address book, opening a two-way text chat. Or you can drag multiple contacts into a group text chat. These text chats are very helpful for passing out links and files to a group that’s on conference call together.
Skype’s underused killer app is free one-to-one video conferencing. Skype will put you into full-screen video chat with anyone in your address book. To send video, you can use your computer’s built-in camera, if it has one, or attach a small webcam. You can even use a camcorder on a tripod attached to your computer. Video cameras are quickly becoming a 24/7 reality of the workplace. Skype provides an opportunity to start playing with them now.
Quality and Security Issues
Skype is able to deliver real-time voice connections by making use of idle processing capacity along the route between callers. Today, where I live, it provides better reception and about the same reliability as cell-phone calls. But how Skype performs depends on many factors, most of which might be hard for you to control.
Skype is more advanced for PCs than for Macs. It strains bandwidth on office WiFi networks. For important Skype sessions, you’ll get better results with an Ethernet (hardwired) connection than a WiFi (wireless) connection. Computers running older processors are prone to having Skype crash.
All these variables can result in Skype sessions where it seems half the people are dropping out at any given moment. But the user experience for people with strong Internet connections and computers of recent vintage is so good you will find yourself treating the landline as the backup phone.
Skype comes with security caveats. At least one client—who does an enormous amount of global business—has a company policy against installing Skype for reasons having to do with both security and bandwidth.
Try Mom as a Model
Skype has come closer than any other software to making distributed teams feel as if colleagues are right down the hall. I now communicate with employees more through Skype than through email or phone.
We use Skype with suppliers (graphic designers, writers, tech support, accountants); with clients (meetings, training); and with the public (we host a Friday-afternoon open Skype session on Internet public relations). Once we used Skype for a press conference, briefing reporters on a new book.
See if these examples resonate for you:
Yesterday, half my staff was on Skype with our tech guru in Seattle, who was giving us a training session in Joomla software.
Also yesterday, a freelance contractor used Skype to guide one of our clients through an hour-long blog hunt to promote a new book.
Today, I’ll be on Skype with our accounting firm to learn how to pull bank statements into QuickBooks electronically.
Tonight, I’ll be on Skype video chat with my mom in Michigan. It’s not polite to reveal someone’s age, but if my 79-year-old mother can Skype, so can you.
My mom got on Skype about six months ago. When I call her, I can gauge her health and mood much more readily than through a voice-only connection. She enjoys walking around her house with her laptop, showing me this or that over the Skype. During one recent session, I passed Mardi Gras photos to her through Skype, and she sent a PDF of a news clipping to me.
About a week after my mom got on Skype, her brother popped up, and the three of us had a Skype training session together. Now Mom provides tech support to her senior sisters and brothers. So if you decide to try Skype and need a little help, just Skype my mom—she’ll talk you through it.
Steve O’Keefe teaches Internet public relations at Tulane University. He is the author of Publicity on the Internet, 10th Anniversary Edition, due out this fall. His Skype address is psp-mahalia.