It's official, only a couple of weeks shy of its first birthday, Skype has graduated out of its beta phase. Skype 1.0 launched today, and carries an amusing greeting message on its home page:
"Hello. We’re Skype and we’ve got something we want to share with you. We’ve got a simple bit of software we want to give you. It’ll let you make free phone calls to your friends all over the world. And we don’t want any money for it. It’s free. You could think of us as the big, free Internet telephony company. We prefer to think of ourselves as a big group hug, even a present. Yes... that’s it... we’re a present... but without the ribbon."For those of us who enjoy monitoring the development of disruptive technologies, Skype has indeed been something of a present. Very shortly after the service launched last year, we were the first brokers in the world to give it coverage (as far as we know), and stated at the time that the arrival of Skype would probably turn out to have been the most significant story in the telecom sector in 2003. That's a view we stand by now, and the growth of the service from a standing start a year ago to 17.2m downloads and average concurrent users of 400k (in my experience), with no marketing, has been an inspiration to watch. Similarly, moving from a position in September 2003, when very few people had heard of the service, to spring 2004, when BT Group was publicly comparing its BT Communicator product to Skype as some sort of industry benchmark, gives a good indication of the shockwaves this application has sent through mainstream telecom. The formal announcement last week of telco partners has similarly been a confirmation of the fact that Skype can generate real revenues, not just for itself, but for others as well, and from a service which is nominally free with a headcount of around 50 people. Skype should be popping the champagne open tonight.
Skype 1.0 contains the very impressive SkypeOut PSTN termination feature, as expected, but also file sharing of files up to 2GB in size (roughly equivalent to 3 feature length movies). This is an interesting development, and I don't want to sound alarmist, but given the determination of the entertainment industry and some US senators to attack piracy by leaning on the enablers via legislation and litigation, we have to ask if Skype is crossing the line from the relatively politically neutral world of voice and into the world of pain which is the file sharing phenomenon. Skype doesn't bill itself as a file-sharing network, but in a climate where (as we've documented here recently) ISPs in Europe are being coerced to block P2P traffic or shut down the accounts of P2P users, this does raise some very uncomfortable questions over the legal position of anyone perceived as facilitating the illegal sharing of copyrighted material. Or, to the contrary, is this a value-added feature which might make Skype more attractive to "legitimate" distributors of licensed content as potential business partners (an idea we have also discussed here recently)? This is a tough issue to read, and we must work on digesting its implications, if any.
Related to today's launch, this article (http://www.pcpro.co.uk/news/news_story.php?id=61090) contains some interesting comments from Skype founder Niklas Zennstrom on the redundancy of the PBX in this new world, namely that a hardware solution can now be replaced by software. This, in fact, is precisely the opportunity being targeted by Peerio, which has received surprisingly little coverage in the mainstream and financial press since its splash at Supercomm last month (which I blogged here). There is also a reference to the avoidance of a white label approach (Skype is going for co-branding in its first venture with ISP PChome in Taiwan www.pchome.com.tw), which is the key strategy behind Voipster, which has also received surprisingly little mainstream coverage since its appearance. A Google search returns 637k citations for Skype, 465 for Voipster and only 324 for Peerio.