Telecoms executives say they are not worried. But Skype, the internet telephony service that some believe will kill the traditional telephone business, has their attention.
Earlier this month, Marco Tronchetti Provera, chairman of Telecom Italia, mentioned the tiny competitor twice as he presented his €32bn company’s strategy for the next three years. But Skype is far from reaching the critical mass of users and revenues that would make it a serious threat to any incumbent operator.
A primary reason that Skype’s potential remains limited is that it is inconvenient to use. A range of phone-like handsets that plug into the USB port of a computer mean that users are no longer tied to using call-centre-style headsets. But Skype still requires being connected to a running computer with a broadband connection.
Netgear announced in January a WiFi Skype phone that would eliminate the need for a PC by logging on directly to the network, but the device is still in prototype.
So the best option today for making Skype as convenient as a regular phone service is to get a cordless Skype phone. These use wireless DECT base stations connected to the PC via the USB port to untether the handset from the computer.
The sleekest and most recent cordless Skype phone is the CIT200 from Linksys. It’s a pleasure to hold, has a vibrant colour screen and offers excellent audio quality, even when using the built-in speaker phone.
The menus are easy to navigate, allowing you to manage Skype remotely from the handset, though they sometimes seem sluggish. Customisation options such as ringtones and colour settings were clearly an afterthought. And the unit I tested had an appallingly short battery life.
The most annoying aspect of the Linksys phone was that the management software installed on my computer greatly increased the time it took my PC to start up, whether I intended to use the phone or not. No other Skype phone seems to do this and it is particularly tiresome if you travel with a laptop.
Another cordless Skype phone that I tested is the Dualphone by RTX Telecom of Denmark. The feature that sets this phone apart is that it connects to both the landline as well as to Skype, allowing users to switch between internet and traditional calls. I did, however, notice an occasional buzz during landline calls if the base station was plugged into my PC.
RTX recently redesigned the phone’s software, better integrating Skype with the handset, improving audio quality and correcting some earlier problems such as an unresponsive keypad.
The Dualphone handset design is a bit clumsy and the monochrome screen seems outdated. And customisation features are more basic than with the Linksys.
But the Dualphone is as reliable as any good cordless and the software is more stable than that of the Linksys. You can connect and disconnect the base station from the PC without any impact on Skype; as soon as the USB cable is plugged in the phone is ready to use. Try that with the Linksys and you will likely have to restart your computer.
The big limitation of the Dualphone is that its base station needs to be connected to a regular phone jack, an electrical outlet and the PC via a USB cable. That’s fine if you use a desktop PC and all of those plugs happen to be in the same place. But it’s a nightmare if you use a laptop.
Linksys’ approach is wiser. The small DECT base station plugs into the PC and requires no separate power cord. A separate cradle recharges the handset.
Neither phone does its job perfectly. But Skype users will likely find that either phone makes the service more practical and that they use Skype much more than before. I certainly did.