It’s been a long time coming, but Skype’s voice-over-IP service is finally coming to the iPhone tomorrow, and a Blackberry client will be out in May. But before you leap with joy, thinking “the future of cheap mobile comms has arrived!” you should know the service is slightly crippled.
Skype’s free iPhone app is good, it uses more of Apple’s app design aesthetic than the desktop Skype client does. And it uses your iPhone contact list so you don’t have to re-enter everyone’s details. You can also tweak your avatar with images snapped from the camera or from the camera roll.
But here’s the rub: Skype’s main feature of cheap voice calls conducted over a VoIP connection only works when you’re wirelessly connected to the internet. In other words you can’t circumvent your cellphone operator’s charges for voice calls at home or abroad by using the 3G data channel. And that’s only to be expected–in some places and under some tariffs you can get unlimited data on an iPhone, and using it for telephony rather than web-surfing would hardly fill the coffers of your friendly cellphone operator. It’s frustrating, though, effectively limiting iPhone Skype to being a slightly more mobile way to access the service when you’re at home or sitting in a net cafe.
A few other features are missing from version 1 as well, like sending SMSs, transferring files, and accessing the account portal directly inside the application to top up your Skype minutes. These are the sort of features you’ll eventually get with software updates.
But it’s the “tied to wireless VOIP” feature that’s got people talking. Currently AT&T, or whoever, still thinks they’re in the business of selling you minutes of voice time for your cellphone, even though all they’re actually selling is two-way wireless data transfer at a specific data rate. Whether you’re using your cellphone to chat or surf the web all that’s really happening is the fast transfer of digital data between your phone and nearby cellphone masts. And as more of us use smartphones like the iPhone or Blackberry to access data on the move, the situation will become yet more data-biased. Eventually, through market pressure or legal action, perhaps with the EU leading the way, cellphone operators will have to start earning revenue by charging you exclusively for the data you access, or follow the home ISP model of charging different tariffs for different data rates–and thus stop discriminating the minutes of “talk time” you’re using up.
Until that time though, Skype has to behave itself and not upset the apple (or should I say AT&T?) cart even as small operations like Fring can get away with it.