Why spend up to $4.1bn on a Voice over Internet Protocol solution when you can have it all for nothing?

While analysts have scratched their heads over eBay’s valuation of Skype, the free internet telephony company, and how it will put its September acquisition to use, many businessmen must have suffered a double-take over what they perceived Skype to be.

Skype has promoted itself as a way for home PC users to hold audio chats with friends and family but it could equally be deployed in an office environment to bring big savings and new functionality.

There are already VoIP companies catering for the enterprise, from Atreus Systems to Zultys Technologies, but FT Adviser’s experience of Skype leads it to believe it can offer an appealing VoIP alternative to businesses.

First off, the latest version of Skype – 1.4 and still in beta – offers an improvement on voice quality that was already superior to a regular phone call. It features call forwarding to a mobile or a landline or other Skype accounts. It is easy to download and install on individual computers and only speakers or a headset along with a microphone are required and are easily configurable. USB keys configured for Skype are now available to make the service even more portable.

Skype enables free calls between computers, meaning savings can be made making or receiving calls from workers in the field.

If they need a regular phone number for customers to call, a subscription service – SkypeIn – can link the service to a number for a particular US area code or for any of eight countries, giving companies the option of a virtual international presence and offering greater potential savings on calls. SkypeOut allows calls to regular landlines and mobiles at discounted rates.

Other Skype features include voicemail, an instant messaging client, file transfers of up to 4 gigabytes and four-way conference calling. Video conferencing is not yet available but is at an advanced stage of development.

In the meantime, there are free plug-in programs from third parties that provide this, including Spontania’s Video4IM and Festoon, formerly VSkype.

Introducing Skype to a company network would probably entail a review of security, bandwidth requirements and administrative procedures but some compelling business applications are starting to appear through the Skype developer community.

Pamela, for example, is able to record Skype conversations and forward voice messages by e-mail.

VoIP rivals from the consumer space include the established instant messaging services of AOL, Yahoo! and Microsoft, and VoIP newcomers such as Google and the Gizmo Project. Asterisk, an open source software project, creates a virtual telephone exchange for individuals or companies and could be linked to Skype.

However, the lack of interoperability between different instant messaging and now VoIP clients is frustrating for users who have to run several competing systems to keep in touch with their contacts spread around the different services.

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