Skype has extended its free online video calling service to Apple devices including the iPhone, setting up a tussle for control of what is seen as an important future service on smartphones.
The availability of Skype’s video service is set to pose a direct challenge to Apple’s own FaceTime video calling service, which Steve Jobs, chief executive, singled out as a key selling point of the iPhone 4 when it went on sale this summer.
A front-facing camera that could bring FaceTime to the iPad is a highly anticipated feature for the next version of the tablet computer, which is expected to be launched in the spring.
Skype said on Thursday that it had released a new version of its app for Apple’s iPhone, iPad and iPod touch that would make it possible to place video calls between the devices and to other machines running the Skype software, including PCs.
By contrast, Apple’s FaceTime can only be used on the iPhone 4.
Apple’s willingness to allow Skype to bring video calling to its devices suggested that it did not view FaceTime as a core service over the long term, said Al Hilwa, analyst at IDC, a technology research firm.
However, the threat of regulatory action could also discourage Apple from trying to block a rival service.
The Federal Communications Commission questioned Apple and its US carrier, AT&T, last year after suggestions that the Google Voice service had been blocked on the iPhone.
The launch of Skype’s mobile video app comes only a week after the FCC came up with new rules that would prevent mobile operators in the US from blocking rival services.
While the latest smartphones feature front and rear-facing cameras for video calling, analysts differ over the rate of adoption by consumers.
Juniper Research predicts that it will not become a mass-market technology in the next five years, with the market held back by the lack of interoperability between different devices and software.
It forecasts 29m smartphone video users by 2015.
However, the In-Stat research firm cite the Apple effect of including its FaceTime software with the iPhone 4 as possibly revolutionising the market.
They predict an annual growth rate in video-calling users of 115 per cent between now and 2015, with revenues exceeding $1bn by the end of that period – even though applications are free and usage is part of regular data plans.
It sees Apple, Fring, ooVoo, Qik and Skype as key service providers.