There is a new telephone service that has been getting a lot of attention recently. This one is a little different though: you use your internet connection to make calls. Skype is a tool developed by the same folks who brought you the Kazaa P2P file sharing service, only this time the focus is on voice rather than files. To be sure, internet voice chats are nothing new. NetMeeting has been around since 1996, allowing you to have voice chats over the web, and most instant messengers include some type of audio / video conferencing features. What sets Skype apart is the quality of the service, and rich set of features. First, Skype has focused on getting voice, and voice only, just right. Skype will work behind some of the toughest firewalls where most instant messenger apps are so fragile that a sneeze on the network shuts them down. The software and service is completely free for making PC to PC phone calls.

One of the features that really sets Skype apart is the SkypeOut service. For a little more than 2 cents a minute, you can use Skype to call justa bout any real phone (mobile or landline) anywhere in the world. There is no monthly subscription fee. Just buy SkypeOut credit like you would a calling card and go to town.

Of course, some folks aren't comfortable making calls from their PC. There is something intimate about having that handset next to your ear that you know that you are making a phone call, and not just talking at your PC. That's where the CyberPhone steps in. It looks like any other telephone handset, and plugs into a USB port on your PC. It works directly with Skype to allow you to place regular phone calls. If that isn't enough freedom for you, grab a handheld PC, such as a Dell Axim or any other Microsoft PocketPC handheld, and you can Skype over your WiFi network. A couple of my buddies at work have PocketPCs, and we tried out the Skype connection that way with great success. There is an element of coolness to knowing you can walk into any place with a open WiFi connection (public libraries, Starbucks, cafes, etc.) and start making free / cheap calls on your PocketPC.

I'm just dabbling with Skype right now, but if this service continues to grow like it has over the past six months, I would almost consider ditching our regular phone service for it. Skype offers a SkypeIn service in beta form now that allows regular landline and cellphone users to call your skype account. Service runs $40 for an entire year, which is about what most people pay per month for their local and long distance service. This is an interesting technology that I'll definitely be keeping tabs on.


Jade Mason