Q: What exactly is Skype, and how do I use it? - Jennifer
A: Unless you have been completely out of the technology loop, it’s likely you have heard the term ‘VoIP,’ which stands for Voice over Internet Protocol.
Essentially, VoIP is a technology that allows you to make telephone calls (local and longdistance) using an Internet connection instead of traditional analog phone lines.
There have been hundreds of ways to accomplish this task over the years, but most required both parties to be slightly tech savvy and load special software or purchase special equipment.
Skype is one of the leaders in the consumer VoIP arena, and a huge part of their success was that they created a nontechnical way to call someone from your computer. (They were acquired by eBay last year for a staggering $2.6 billion plus options!)
Avoiding long-distance charges was the main driver in the early days of consumer-focused VoIP services, but the fact that most of us have lots of longdistance minutes included in our cell phone plans has somewhat diminished the appeal of these services (for domestic calls at least).
As long as both parties load the Skype software (domestic or international) on their respective computers, they can talk unlimited for free.
But one of the nice things about the Skype service is that it does not require both parties to have the software. Skype-Out is one of their services that allows you to place a call from your computer to any standard phone. SkypeOut calls can be placed for free to any land line or cell phone in the U.S. or Canada until the end of this year.
All you need is any PC or Mac, a high-speed Internet connection (it will work on dial-up, but the sound quality is not so great) and a headset with a microphone. Most laptops have an adequate microphone and speakers built-in, so you won’t need the headset in those cases.
Skype is so popular that a number of companies have developed “Skype capable” USB phones that plug into your computer so you can use what looks like a regular phone that is connected to your computer. Search Google for “Skype Phones.”
Anyone who travels abroad or has family in other countries can use Skype to avoid international long-distance charges (as long as both parties have the Skype software loaded on their computers), or you can use SkypeOut to place a call to any standard phone number for a rather small fee.
I was recently on a trip to a remote island in the Caribbean and used the SkypeOut International service to place calls from my laptop back to the office and home.
You simply load the software, buy credits and start placing phone calls. I bought $10 worth of Skype credits, used the phone daily over a 10-day period and still have $6.36 worth of time left.
The latest version also allows you to place video calls (as long as both parties use Skype) and claims to improve the sound quality.
In my use, the folks I called could not tell that I was calling via the Internet, and the microphone built into the front of my laptop worked just fine.
There are a number of VoIP services, but for the scenarios that I pointed out, it’s hard to beat the quality and value of Skype. If you haven’t tried it out yet, go to www.skype.com and give it a shot.