Saturday, October 13, 2007

Business Line Becomes VOIP Line

In the last few weeks, we've rearranged our offices to separate the business teams from the development teams (seems us business types tend to make a bit too much noise for those heads-down developers). I've also hired two new team members. As a result of these two events, instead of paying yet another exorbitant telco install fee, I decided to make the leap from landlines and switch the team to Skype for our phone service. I should point out that this is not my first foray into Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP). My home phone us run by AT&T's CallVantage service, and one of my team members has been on Skype since she joined us. I also used Skype to chat with another company executive while he was in India. In all cases, I was impressed with the voice quality, and the price is unreal.

To start, I installed the latest Skype client, and got it working with my headset: the whole process took about 2 minutes. Next up was getting a plan so I could call regular phones; Skype's SkypeOut Unlimited did the job for me, for $30 a year for unlimited calling to any landline in North America. Finally, a phone number that could be directed from my company's PBX for clients to call me; I opted for Skype Pro for $3 a month, in addition to a SkypeIn number for another $30 annually. Paying for these services was a bit odd, as you can only use certain credit cards or PayPal, and the currency has to be switched from Euros. I played with it for a couple of days, and was pleasantly surprised.

Since my experience went well, I discovered Skype has a tool for me to add numbers and control usage for my other employees, Skype for Business. Free, and offers the promise of a smooth administration, it looked to be just what the doctor ordered. And here was where things got bizarre. First, yes, you can sign up for Skype For Business free, but you need to add money into a joint account to spread the funds across employees. Options? Bank transfer, PayPal or a "Moneybookers" account. That's it. Uh, folks, is this not called Skype For BUSINESS? You're telling me I can't just give you a company credit card? Frustrated, I signed up for a PayPal account with the company card...and was told I could transfer a maximum of $25 into the account. I have to buy SkypeIn numbers and Skype credits for several employees, and I'm limited to $25?

Frustrated, I looked into "MoneyBookers," which is essentially a UK company that does similar to PayPal, but after 15 minutes of transatlantic form filling, I was told that the company card could not be processed since it was drawn on a US bank. ARGH. I wrote to Skype, explained the situation, as well as the ludicrousness of having to explain that I wanted to give them money and they were preventing me. That was weeks ago, and I have yet to receive a reply. I was finally forced to involve our CFO to do a bank transfer to fund this little operation.

Next came the fun of getting my staff up. I asked them to sign up for Skype, and send me their usernames. The Business Control Panel allowed me to send invites to those usernames...which none of my team ever received. Multiple efforts, nothing. Out of frustration, I finally downloaded the Business Edition of Skype, which is described as "a business version of Skype. It has the same features as the standard version; however, it also includes Windows Installer (commonly known as MSI)." What it does NOT say, however, is that if you want your team to use the Control Panel, they MUST install this version. Now, would you not think this would be stated somewhere in the Business Control Panel? What are these Euro nutcases thinking? Finally, my staff was able to connect to the Panel, I was able to allocate them numbers and credits, and away we went.

The quality of the calls is excellent, especially Skype to Skype. Better than any phone call you could ever hope for. The few complaints I have are around performance: there is sometimes a slight lag in the calls to landlines (very rare), and some of my staff say they have had callers say the sound is "tinny" on occasion. The biggest grype I have is around the resource usage: I frequently am pushing the CPU on my laptop to full capacity, and if I am on a call, this can impact it: sound drops out, lag, and even a Max Headroom stutter on occasion. Still, the overall quality and ease of use is impressive, and the mobility factor is amazing.

My conclusions are that Skype needs to get their Scandinavian heads out of their asses (and their masters at eBay's crotches) and either embrace this as business, or keep to their little personal calling tools. I did look at the Gizmo Project, but reviews pointed to far spottier call quality. I did not look at Yahoo Messenger's or AIM's phone options, and I desperately craved a version of Google Talk that calls landlines, but Skype owns the space. If I had to do it again, I would still choose Skype, but these guys need to get their customer service in gear, as no business should have to go through what I did.

In any case, if you happen to be on Skype, feel free to give me a call.

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