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Technology: The Skype Mobile Phone Will Blow Your Mind

If you are feeble of constitution, beware: the following review asks the reader to reconcile two drastically disparate technology abstracts — mobile phones and Skype — in a way that might cause temporary insanity. But I mean “insanity” in, like, a good way.

If you are feeble of constitution, beware: the following review asks the reader to reconcile two drastically disparate technology abstracts — mobile phones and Skype — in a way that might cause temporary insanity. But I mean “insanity” in, like, a good way.

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That’s because the new 3 Skypephone, powered by a small software company called iSkoot (in partnership with British phonemaker 3), performs a remarkable little trick that could change the way cell phone service (and pricing) is understood amongst the next generation of mobile talkers.

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Image courtesy of 3skypephone.com

Here’s what iSkoot’s software does for the Skypephone: it allows users to use a normal mobile handset to make calls as a Skype user. The idea works like this: you, the consumer, purchase the phone (which is GSM compatible) for a flat rate of 50 pounds sterling (no word yet on a US price). From there, all calls made over the Skype network (that is, from your phone to other Skype users) are free, and calls to regular phones are 12 pence per minute. The only other requirement is that you download at least 10 pounds sterling in ringtones, wallpapers, and other widgets, every month. Your Skype-to-Skype calls are unlimited.

The phone’s success will rely strongly on the ubiquity of Skype, which in the US, doesn’t yet exist (at least according to VP Wolli Mõtsküla of Skype, at a recent Skype developers conference I attended here in New York.) That leaves the 7 other countries in which iSkoot has released the phone to build up a user base for the phone while American users catch up. Eventually, the real magic will happen when the phones are common enough that two Skypephone users will call each other for free — and realize they could literally talk all month for only the price of a few ringtones. That will be the moment that a lot of VOIP proponents will have awaited for years.

So how does it work? Under the hood, iSkoot’s software takes a clever approach to an ineluctable problem. According to iSkoot CEO Jacob Guedalia, the natural idea would be to transmit a Skype call as data. But, as he explains, “putting the VOIP on top of the data network wouldn’t work; the network isn’t there.” Instead, he and his engineers decided to have the phone call a gateway via the normal cell phone network, and that gateway, in turn, ports the phone into the PC network.

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Guedalia says: “On the face of it, [an iSkoot call] is not that huge of an innovation, because it’s not that different from a typical calling card call. What is innovative is that you can call from a phone number to a Skype screenname, instead of just calling from a number to number.” Because the gateway that does the number-to-screenname translation resides within the big cell carriers’ firewalls, they’re still getting traffic — and keeping the big boys happy is all part of iSkoot’s plan. “[The Skypephone] is good for carriers, which means we can, in turn, offer an aggressive price plan,” says Guedalia.

iSkoot is mum about a US release date and price plan, but they were content to provide me with a test model of the Skypephone. The phone itself is a terrific little device; solidly designed and logically functioning, with a surprisingly good suite of data/internet applications and chat software. Using Skype on the phone was a breeze, even for me — and I’m not a frequent Skype user. It’s a small, well-thought-out gizmo, even for a normal mobile phone; add Skype, and the thing is truly a viable trendsetter.

If American users can grasp the potency of Skype, there is no reason to think that the 3 Skypephone won’t be a success. Using Europe as their proving grounds, iSkoot should have a well-polished product by the time the phone reaches American shores. I, for one, look forward to it.

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About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs

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