General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

A service of the ABA General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology eReport

American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

NOV 2009

Vol. 8, No. 4

Columns

 

TechNotes
The Hype About Skype

Skype is a quirky little service that you might be tempted to dismiss as something that’s too “techie” to use.

The fact is, Skype is a fantastic, free communication tool. I’ll explore the basic setup and operation of Skype in this column, but know that Skype offers a lot more than what’s covered here.

Voices Over the Internet

For a basic definition, Skype allows you to make voice calls over the Internet. A voice call can be between two computers that have Skype installed, or it can be from your computer (with Skype) to a regular phone number (cell phone or landline).

You’ll hear Skype referred to as “Voice over Internet Protocol” or VoIP. That simply means that your voice is traveling over the same networks that support the Internet—the Internet Protocol. The same Internet that delivers www.cnn.com to your Web browser can also carry your digitized voice.

Skype, however, is not intended to be a complete replacement for your “regular” telephone (cell or landline). Some lawyers have successfully switched over to Skype to save costs, but the technology is not quite mature enough to comfortably replace office phones.

Rather, Skype should be viewed as one of several communication “tools” at your disposal. When you need to contact someone, you choose to do so through face-to-face conversation, email, instant message, text message, phone call, or a formal letter. Skype is merely another option in your communication toolbox.

Download and Load Up

The Skype software is a free download available from www.skype.com. You’ll need the software to use the Skype service.

Next you’ll need to sign up for a free Skype account with a valid email address.

Your first main task is to decide exactly how you will speak and hear through Skype. If you’re on a laptop, there’s a good bet that you have a built in microphone and speakers. If you’re on a desktop computer, you’ll need to manually add a pair of speakers and a microphone.

A better move is to get a USB headset that’s basically a pair of headphones with a microphone attached. Skype recommends certain headsets, but any USB headset should work just fine (I use the Logitech Premium Notebook Headset).

The built-in microphone and speakers on a laptop will work just fine, but a headset offers more privacy. You’ll also want your caller to hear you clearly without a lot of background noise, and a headset is the best method to provide a better Skype experience.

When you add a headset, you’ll need to go into Skype’s audio settings to make the switch. If you’re on a laptop, you’ll normally find that your built-in microphone and speakers are selected by default in the drop-down list, and you can easily switch them to the USB headset.

To test everything, you can make a free “Skype Test Call” where you’ll hear the friendly “Skype lady.” You’ll be able to record a short message that gets played back so that you can ensure everything is working properly.

Partial Pay-to-Play

A “Skype-to-Skype” call is free. When you call another computer that has Skype installed, the call is completely free. You can talk as long as you want. And if you have a video camera built into your laptop or plugged into your desktop, you can upgrade your conversation to free videoconferencing.

When you want to use Skype to call a regular phone number (known as “ SkypeOut”), you’ll have to start paying. You can either buy a bucket of Skype credits, or you can purchase a subscription.

Buying Skype credits gives you a balance that gets whittled down every time you make a call. The price per minute varies with the location you’re calling from and to. Calls in the United States cost 2 cents per minute. Skype has a list of call rates on its website.

Credits are great if you rarely use Skype, but if you intend to use the service more often, a monthly subscription is a better way to go. For as little as $2.95 a month, you can enjoy unlimited calls to landlines located in the United States and Canada.

As a bonus, Skype allows you to call toll-free numbers completely free. I regularly use Skype to call a customer service hotline instead of picking up my office phone. I also use Skype when I join an online webinar where I’m viewing a PowerPoint presentation on the screen, and listening to the presenter through Skype on my headset or computer speakers.

But That’s Not All!

Skype isn’t just for voice calls. It can handle video conferencing, instant messaging, sending files, and now even screen sharing.

Instant messaging can be a great way to take care of a quick conversation. You can ask your question, get an answer, and continue working without taking the distraction of talking to someone on the phone.

But if you’re in the middle of an instant message session, Skype will allow you to turn that conversation into a voice call with a click of the mouse.

Skype will also allow you to send files to another person you’re calling through Skype (this obviously doesn’t work when calling a regular phone). I use Skype to send pictures of the kids to the grandparents while we’re videovisiting over Skype.

What It’s Not

I’ve already cautioned that Skype is no replacement for your office phone, although it does an excellent job of supplementing your current phone service. For example, Skype is an excellent way to communicate when you’re on the road with your laptop. Sure you have your cell phone, but Skype allows you to set up an impromptu videoconference.

Skype cannot make emergency calls. Skype is also not a fax service as some people tend to think.

Also, keep in mind that Skype is primarily a free service, so don’t expect stellar customer service. The Skype website has an excellent support section that answers just about every question imaginable, but don’t expect much more than that.

Lastly, many people are hesitant about Skype because they don’t want to be bothered with other phone calls and messages. The great thing about Skype is that you can set your “status” to say you’re not available, or that you’re away from the computer. That helps to make sure Skype doesn’t become a distraction through the day, and you can just turn the service on when you need to use it.

Brett Burney is Principal of Burney Consultants LLC ( www.burneyconsultants.com) where he focuses his time on bridging the gap between the legal and technical frontiers of electronic discovery. You can email Brett at burney@burneyconsultants.com and visit his blog at www.ediscoveryinfo.com.

© Copyright 2009, American Bar Association.