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The Terroir of Skype

By Esther Schindler
I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into instant messaging. I once thought that IM was yet another distraction; now, I can't get my job done without it. That's a common experience for business users nowadays. IM has become the way to connect geographically distant employees, and a means to touch base with business associates.

However, most IM clients are, well, just text messaging software. You type into a window and your correspondent types back. Perhaps, if you're adventurous, you use voice (called Voice over IP, or VOIP) or videoconferencing with your IM client. Maybe you're dependent enough on IM to use it on your cell phone. But that's about it.

With, perhaps, one exception.
Skype has been wildly successful in creating an entire ecosystem around its services. Unlike other IM services, which use proprietary technologies, Skype encourages developers to use its API to create new applications and to extend existing software. And, while plenty of the resulting software is geared towards end-users, the list of options extends far into the business market. I'll give you a little tour of what's available.

One free option is s3ven's Outlook Skype Plugin which adds a toolbar to Microsoft Outlook, enabling you to see your contacts' Skype phone numbers, call him immediately, or send an instant message. It works on Outlook 2000 to 2003.

It's becoming common for applications that manage contact information to incorporate Skype info in its recordkeeping. For example, Avensc implemented support for Skype within all the company's CRM Dashboard products, and users can automatically dial the contact. DocLife Solutions has a free utilty to add a SkypeName to the corporate LDAP directory, such as Microsoft Active Directory, which enables various corporate applications to leverage the information.

Nor are all these companies working alone. A few weeks ago, Skype announced SkypeWeb, a Web presence feature that is already integrated into more than 50 Web sites in 20 countries around the world. According to the company, SkypeWeb allows people to see Skype users' online status and call or chat with them from any Web site as well as Skype people from each site with the simple click of a mouse. Among the firms that have incorporated SkypeWeb into their software are Salesforce.com, which has made SkypeWeb available on its AppExchange on-demand CRM, enabling customers to deploy it directly within their Salesforce implementation.  TOM.com is using SkypeWeb in its customer service offering to display Skype user presence information for its customer service representatives. DBA.DK (Den Bla Avis), a Danish classifieds portal, is using SkypeWeb to show the Skype status of people who have posted classified ads. And vBulletin has  adopted SkypeWeb, providing instant Skype status integration for the company's forum software.

You can also find several tools that promise to improve the way Skype works for you. Among them is Pamela, which answers calls and chats, record audio files in native MP3 format, and supports multiuser environments. The basic version is freeware, and the compny has two paid versions with additional features.

Other companies are extending Skype into the corporate web conferencing business. Convenos Meeting Center, a Web conferencing and collaboration solution, integrates meeting workspaces and Skype calls, combining unlimited online meetings hosted on Convenos servers with integrated Internet calling with no additional per-minute charges.

has also added Skype support to its peer-to-peer collaboration engine. The online service, which "seamlessly converts mainstream productivity applications such as the Microsoft Office suite from static standalone tools to interactive, collaborative platforms" lets Skype users add a visual anchor and review, approve and edit documents (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) in conjunction with their voice conferences.

If you build your own applications, there are additional tools -- beyond Skype's own API -- to help make the job easier. For example, this plug-in helps you integrate Skype in your FileMaker solution, so that the application can make or answer calls inside FileMaker, send or receive voicemails, and include Skype chat features.

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Esther Schindler has been writing about technology professionally since 1992, and her byline has appeared in dozens of IT publications. She's optimized compilers, owned a computer store, taught corporate training classes, moderated online communities, run computer user groups, and, in her spare time, written a few books. You can reach her at esthers@digitalmediaonlineinc.com.
Related Keywords:instant messaging, skype, collaboration, ldap, api, software development, voip, video conferencing, webcam, crm, salesforce

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