Niklas Zennstrom, who also serves as the company's CEO, demonstrated a beta video version of Skype during his keynote at the AlwaysOn conference at Stanford University in California. The application is a plug-in based on Skype's core telecommunications technology and is being tested internally. Speaking from his office in Estonia, the executive did not say when the product would be ready for release.
Flanked by Tim Draper of investment firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson (Skype's largest investor, to the tune of US$10 million), Zennstrom said his goal is to use innovations from developers and outside partners to help build his business to a level that could rival Google and Yahoo.
"We are trying to create an ecosystem and extend our network... and we are focused on developing our products and extending our APIs (application user interfaces) so we can be bigger than we could be by ourselves," Zennstrom said, declining to respond to speculation that Yahoo is trying to buy his company. Skype's annual revenue has not been disclosed, but analysts suggest that it could be in the US$6 billion to US$10 billion range.
So far, Skype has been successful with an affiliate program that allows companies and small Web site owners to co-brand the Skype service. So far, sites in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and some European countries are on board.
Zennstrom also noted that his company's partnerships with hardware manufacturers, including Motorola and Siemens, would help increase Skype's user base. So far, Palm OS-based smart phones were not being considered, Zennstrom said, because the operating system wasn't that great for voice processing.
At one point, Zennstrom affirmed claims that Skype software uses some of the computing resources and available bandwidth on a connected PC to create super groupings of network identities or nodes without user permission. The executive explained that any such practice helped the software better locate a Skype user on the network.
"If I can share my computer resources and not pay my phone bill, some people think that is a good thing," he said.
Video VoIP still far away
Video telephony has perennially been the "next year" application for leading providers of Internet telephony, meaning they've all said it's coming but have yet to introduce the services. In the US, video telephony is available from Packet8, a Silicon Valley-based Net phone operator. Meanwhile, gear makers Cisco Systems, Avaya and others are trying to develop ways to lower the costs of videophones, which are considered too high for most consumers.
Analysts believe businesses will be the first adopters of video telephony, mainly as a way to cut down on travel costs associated with in-person meetings. Consumers are less likely to adopt such a service until the price of phones drops to affordable levels -- below US$100 each, analysts say.
Considering that Skype's telephony software has been downloaded more than 132 million times, and has up to 3 million simultaneous users at any time of day, Skype's entry into the video phone application game is sure to boost the industry's chances.
But it remains to be seen whether Skype customers are willing to buy video phones, or pay for any new videophone software the operator is going to release. That's because Skype's is mostly a free service if the calls are made between Internet-connected PCs, although it does offer premium services such as SkypeOut, which lets users make calls from their PC to traditional phones for about two cents a minute. So far, SkypeOut has about 1.1 million customers, which Skype says allows it to lay claim to the title of largest commercial VoIP operator.
Draper, who helped fund cutting-edge companies such as online e-mail provider Hotmail and Internet advertising software firm Overture, affirmed that he and Zennstrom would like to keep Skype a private company. The investment banker said that Skype wouldn't even consider being acquired for less than US$1 billion.