Years ago, I tried to convince my parents, who lived about three hours away from me, to install a program called PGPfone on their computer so they could call me online for free (as a bonus, it was encrypted, so nobody could eavesdrop on their lecturing me about school and work!); but this was in days of dialup access, and it was too complicated or something.
But it did allow me to look a decade or so into future and see Internet merging with and taking over traditional technologies like phone service. That's finally starting to happen, now that broadband for masses is a reality, and one little company stands poised to make it huge.
In 2003, Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, better known as founders of wildly-popular peer-to-peer file sharing system called KaZaA, created Skype, Global Internet Telephone Company. Based in Luxembourg, Skype Group's website (http://www.skype.com) states that their client program has been downloaded over 100 million times and company's website ticks number of minutes served -- over 8 BILLION and counting.
How Does It Work?
At most basic level, you download free Skype program, which most resembles a chat program like iChat or AIM. You can even use it to type back and forth if that's your thing. You set up an account at Skype website where you can maintain profile information, preferences and contact lists. It even stores your chat transcripts in your account online so that you can access that important website link your boss sent you while you were home when you get to office next day. Yahoo! could take a lesson.
The real beauty of Skype is when you connect with another Skype user and talk with them as if they were sitting next to you. I was blown away by quality and ease of use first time I used it here at Cafe ID (http://www.cafeid.com) to talk to one of our programmers in Eastern Europe. You set up contact lists and making calls is as simple as initiating a chat in a lesser program.
You can also use your Skype program to call normal phones anywhere in world simply by depositing money into an account and dialing numbers. SkypeOut Calls are billed based on their destination. For example, if you're in China, and you want to call U.S., you pay low U.S. rate, but if you're in South Carolina and you want to call China, you pay a higher rate. Skype has blessed large portions of globe -- continental U.S. and Canada, Western Europe and Australia -- with a low (roughly $.02/minute) Global Rate. Other destinations are more expensive, as is calling mobile telephones. The most expensive rate is $1.17/minute to -- you guessed it! East Timor.
Two new features are in works, as well. SkypeIn is a service that allows you to set yourself up with a Skype phone number where technological laggards can reach you. It doesn't matter where you are, as long as you're logged into Skype, you're at your phone number. This is an invaluable service for business travelers who go places in which their cellphones don't know they're in world. The other new service is Skype Voicemail. It, of course, works like your traditional voicemail system, but stores your messages online where you can retrieve them at any point.