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Verizon will pre-install a version of Skype Mobile on nine Blackberry and Android handsets. This partnership puts a nice little crack in the wall between traditional telcos and internet telephony providers, who have redefined what it means — and should cost — to make a phone call. But the full promise of mobile internet telephony is still a ways off (though perhaps only a few more weeks).
The integration of Skype mobile does give Verizon one huge advantage — you can now receive internet calls spontaneously on a standard handset — but it falls far short of an implementation that would unleash the full power of Skype on a mobile device.
And it isn’t really internet telephony at all: Skype calls are routed through Verizon’s network, you can’t receive calls placed to your online numbers, you can’t use Skype (and its cheaper calling plans) to place calls to other telephones. Skype on Verizon doesn’t even work under Wi-Fi, where Skype sort of lives.
Still, it’s a bold maneuver by Verizon that would seem to benefit the original internet telephony upstart even more. Exposing people to the idea that you can use the internet to make and receive free and dirt-cheap phone calls — that you don’t need expensive calling plans and contracts — could be madness. Or, it could be a brilliant way of managing an inevitable shift that eluded other industries to their peril. In a way, this is just a continuation of the trajectory that saw telcos tack hard to wireless when it was clear the landline business was cratering.
As a technical matter, internet telephony — VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol — has been around for decades. But as a full-throated option it only came into its own with the explosion in broadband five years or so ago. And in the last couple of years, VoIP has become a standard part of consumer services offered by cable and satellite dish companies piping internet, television and voice into homes.
So people are used to it. Now, with the explosion of smartphones, more people will likely start asking: Since the phone is just an app anyway, why does it have to be such a darn expensive one?
Skype is in the middle of all this. Anyone can have a free Skype account and use it to make and receive free calls with anyone else who has Skype account. With the basic service, you are not a unique number, but a unique name that others can list as a contact and also SMS and instant message. This is the basic tier of Skype that Verizon has brought to its handsets (well, minus the SMS part, too).
And since the Android and Blackberry operating systems allow apps to run in the background, the phone knows when someone is trying to call you using Skype, which mimics the experience of leaving your computer on and Skype running.
On the iPhone, it isn’t nearly as pretty. Skype can’t run in the background. That’s not a big deal when you want to make a call, but it’s ugly when you want to receive one. Ordinarily, people make arrangements using another medium to make a Skype appointment — exit the spontaneity Verizon has introduced.
But on the iPhone app (which does not require Wi-Fi, but can use it), you have full access to whatever Skype bells and whistles you have paid for. That might include (as it does for me) two online numbers that people can call from any phone — not just a computer or other device that runs Skype — and that display as your caller ID. That might also include a calling plan that lets you use Skype to call any number in the United States and Canada for $30 — a year. Using the Fring iPhone app, you can even take part in a (sort of) Skype video call; the video is one-way since the iPhone doesn’t have a front-facing camera (yet?).
So, we seem to still be a ways away from the perfect situation for customers: Skype being able to have whatever customer relationship it wants on whatever mobile device that customer has. For iPhone — and soon iPad owners — it would require a change in the OS that would allow third-party apps to run in the background. For Verizon, it would require allowing Skype to provide an app that, on the handsets it markets, isn’t crippled.
This may happen sooner than later. If the reports of Apple’s iPhone HD are accurate, then third-party multitasking will be part of OS 4. That could make the iPhone the more compelling Skype delivery system — but wait: The other part of those reports is that Apple is now making a phone for Verizon, too.
Would Apple and AT&T allow Skype to run roughshod on the latest version of the iPhone? Would Verizon allow Skype to be a feast on one of its smartphones, and a merely a snack on the others?

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