24 April 2009

Skype’s Business Strategy: Implications for the Unified Communications Market

23 04 2009 - An analysis of Skype's business strategy and implications for the unified communications market.

Skype has taken a multipronged approach toward the market for business communications services and solutions. The company has maintained a consistent message, remaining true to its mission of providing free, or in the case of connecting to the PSTN, low-cost alternatives to traditional voice services. As Skype seeks to connect its proprietary voice network directly to SIP-based PBX systems deployed by SMBs, developers of communications solutions will find themselves face-to-face with the owner of the world’s largest peer-to-peer voice network. This report will examine the following questions:
  • What are Skype’s aspirations for the business market?
  • What are Skype’s business communications offerings and how are they distinct from one another?
  • What role will Skype play in the market for business communications solutions?
  • What threat does Skype pose to unified communications solutions developers?

Current Perspective

Last month, Skype introduced Skype For SIP, the latest in a years-long initiative to turn its largely consumer-based network service into a compelling offering for businesses as well. Skype, which had 405 million registered users worldwide at the end of 2008, has been very successful in building up vast amounts of international traffic. Skype has ramped up its revenues by selling services that let Skype users interconnect to the public telephone network at inexpensive rates. Skype is seeking to generate $1 billion in revenues by 2011, up from $558 million in 2008. Much of this increase will presumably stem from an increased level of revenues from businesses.

Skype has three distinct business offerings, each with the potential to impact the business communications solutions market in a somewhat different way. Details of each service and its respective effect on communications solutions follow. But Skype still has much work to do in building out a reseller channel and ecosystem of partners that are focused on advancing Skype business market aspirations. If Skype successfully executes its product strategies, providers offering SIP trunking services and startup developers of Skype-to-SIP gateways will be affected long before developers of business-grade unified communications solutions.

At present, Skype is more a force to be monitored, not a competitor for UC solutions developers to wage war against. Skype for Business: The granddaddy of Skype’s business strategy, Skype for Business provides all the same features of the consumer service: voice, video and conferencing calling, instant messaging (IM), group IM and a mobility client. Skype adds the Business Control Panel, a free Web-based tool that allows companies to allocate and manage SkypeIn numbers assigned to employees and monetary credits used to pay for multiple employees: $3 per month for Skype voicemail boxes, $0.9 per message for SMS, $18 per quarter for SkypeIn numbers, and Skype-to-PSTN (SkypeOut) minutes.

In the years since its launch, Skype for Business has posed a slight threat to PBX developers, since the service provides business users with a smattering of voice features associated with corporate communications solutions: call connection, voicemail, instant messaging, video conferencing, etc. Third-party developers like NETGEAR, Belkin and Philips have developed desk phones and WiFi handsets that connect directly to Skype. Compatible call recording, ACD, fax and desktop sharing software add to the appeal of Skype for Business.

Though the Skype for Business feature set does not have the long list of call features common to key systems, low-end PBXs and hosted voice services more commonly deployed by SMBs, PBX developers consider Skype for Business about as much a threat as any other network-based voice service that is offered as an alternative to a premises-based system.

Skype for Asterisk: Compared with Skype for Business, Skype for Asterisk represents quite a different approach on the part of Skype as it seeks to better establish itself as a credible provider of business communications services and solutions. Launched in late 2008, Skype for Asterisk provides driver software letting users of Asterisk-based PBX systems place, receive and transfer Skype calls from the PBX handsets currently on their desks.

Calls can be placed to and received from any user on the Skype network. With Skype for Asterisk, the Skype client software is integrated with the PBX, giving users access to PBX call control features and Skype IM, presence and peer-to-peer video conferencing, and so forth. The primary impact of Skype for Asterisk (as well as Skype for SIP, covered below) will be to reduce the costs associated with the traditional PSTN and IP trunking services that currently connect to a SMBs’ PBX services. (For a detailed analysis of this, see Skype takes on Telcos with SIP Trunking, March 30, 2009).

However, the ability to integrate the Skype client software with the PBX could also impact the way SMBs adopt unified communications solutions. Rather than depend on PBX developers’ client software to link telephony and IM feature sets, businesses could in time leverage the Skype for Asterisk client. Given the general dearth of SMB-oriented unified communications functions on the market, Skype has a genuine opportunity to create a wider-spread appeal for UC among SMBs.

However, such an initiative would more likely stem from developers of Asterisk-based PBXs rather than from Skype, which to date has shown no inclination of becoming a business-grade unified communications powerhouse. However, Skype for Asterisk remains in beta and it remains unclear when a commercially available version of the solution will be available to open-source developers, resellers and businesses deploying Asterisk-based PBX systems.

Skype for SIP: Like Skype for Asterisk, Skype for SIP is meant to provide interoperability between PBXs deployed on premise and the Skype network. As with other Skype services, businesses participating in Skype's SIP trunking services buy their own Internet access to connect to Skype For SIP, and Skype for SIP is not intended as a lifeline replacement (i.e., it does not support emergency dialing).

At launch, the Skype for SIP beta code will be verified to natively integrate with Cisco UC 500 and Unified Communications Manager Express, Nortel Business Communications Manager 50 and Asterisk-based PBX systems supporting SIP. Ingate and Edgewater Networks SIP firewalls provide assistance with NAT traversal and aid the quality of service required for VoIP while Quintum, AudioCodes, and Mediatrix gateways can provide interoperability with legacy PBX systems not running SIP.

Skype is enhancing its Business Control Panel software to provide Skype for SIP configuration tools, PBX call detail reporting, and other management functionality. Despite their similarity in name and general purpose (proving an interface between PBX systems and the Skype network), Skype for Asterisk and Skype for SIP have quite a few differences. For instance, Skype for SIP cannot establish outbound calls between Skype for SIP users and existing accounts on the Skype network.

Also, Skype for SIP provides no integration of the Skype soft client with the SIP-based PBXs connected to the Skype for SIP service. And Skype for SIP is at present a considerably less functional service that will likely receive the less attention from developers since it will not be open to the large open-source community backing the Asterisk software. Lack of integration with the Skype software client, lack of telephony presence information displayed in the Skype UI, and the absence of native encryption all reveal Skype for SIP as considerably less mature than Skype for Asterisk.

In time, this functionality gap between the two could start to close, but only if Skype’s ceases to position Skype for SIP as merely an alternative communications channel for SIP-based PBXs and begins integrating its ubiquitous client software with PBXs in a manner similar to the Skype for Asterisk service. This means that in the long term, Skype for SIP could pose a threat to PBX developers’ unified communications strategies, but this is not presently the case. Like, Skype for Asterisk, Skype for SIP is presently in beta. General availability is expected later in 2009.

Lite Version of Skype and Skype for iPhone: Though not comparable to the previously mentioned business-oriented Skype service offerings, existing and upcoming Skype clients for mobile phones will have a direct impact on business adoption and use of Skype. The ability to run the Skype software on mobile devices will be critical to its adoption by business users. At this time there is no way for a Skype-attached PBX to treat the Skype clients running on Symbian, Windows Mobile and iPhone devices as PBX extensions. This could change over time, particularly as the innovative open source PBX community begins turning its attention to delivering a mobility solution interoperable with the Skype for Asterisk service. For the time being, however, the lite version of Skype and Skype for iPhone remain primarily consumer-oriented clients.

Skype-to-PBX Gateways: Skype for SIP and Skype for Asterisk will directly impact the niche market for PBX-to-Skype solutions that sprung up following the introduction of Skype for Business. Developers like Actiontec, Industry Dynamics, SipTheeSkype, VoSKY and Uplink have variously developed adapter software and gateway appliances that connect SIP-based PBX systems to the Skype’s proprietary network. Skype’s SIP and Asterisk services undermine these solutions, which involve hardware and/or software deployed at the customer premise. Skype for SIP is intended to do away with the need of deploying such products, handling protocol conversion in the network rather than on the customer premise. There will still be a market for third-party Skype-to-SIP gateways among mid-market and large enterprise, for example, since Skype will mainly target SMBs with its SIP service. These appliances and adapters remain more technically advanced than the still nascent Skype for SIP offering, are backed by better support programs, and are sold by VARs that understand and appreciate them. These third-party appliances and adapters will continue to enjoy cult popularity among businesses that are integrating existing communications networks to Skype.

Recommended User Actions

• Small businesses seeking a means of reducing their recurring telecommunications services costs should ask their resellers about Skype for SIP, Skype for Asterisk or independent developers’ Skype-to-SIP gateway products. Though these will not drastically reduce telecom expenditures, they could shave off a few thousand dollars a year compared with more traditional SIP trunking services.

• SMBs seeking sophisticated unified communications and mobility solutions should not count on Skype as a source for these features. Despite the company’s ability to deliver peer-to-peer voice services, voice mail, IM, IM presence and client software for mobile devices, Skype does not have a formal unified communications strategy suitable to business buyers. SMBs should continue relaying on their traditional converged and unified communications solutions developers for such capabilities.

• Enterprises supporting end users who are actively utilizing Skype for workgroup communications and collaboration should not expect a formal enterprise-grade offering to be immediately forthcoming from Skype. The company is more focused on building out a presence in the SMB market rather than targeting large enterprise accounts. However, VoSKY and other Skype-to-SIP gateway start-ups do sell into the enterprise space, so there are certainly options available for larger-sized businesses to begin integrating their PBX systems with the Skype network.

• Skype has no established network of channel relationships, and its low price means it can offer little financial incentive to get agents and VARs to promote its services. However, Skype is hoping to remedy this as its Skype for SIP service becomes generally available. Resellers serving the small business market should monitor the development of Skype’s channel program to determine how compelling it will be.

• Businesses considering Skype for SIP or Skype for Asterisk should demand QoS assurances and clearly defined SLAs. If the Skype network will be a business’s primary means of communicating with partners, suppliers and customers, the quality of the service must be extremely reliable and on par with traditional voice services.

Source: Current Analysis

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