3's new made-for-Skype mobile phone gives you free VoIP calls on the move. Up next: service stations to give away free petrol, and coffee shops hand out complimentary cappuccinos?
It wasn't exactly a surprise, given the rumours circulating in recent weeks. But the partnership announced today between 3 and Skype has undeniably changed the face of the mobile landscape.
From December, 3's Australian customers can slip a swanky Skypephone (in your choice of café black or arctic white) into their purse or pocket and make free calls to fellow Skypers anywhere in the world.
3 will allow 4,000 minutes of Skype-to-Skype calls each month, "which is around three days of non-stop talking" said 3's local director of sales and marketing, Noel Hamill. While 3 won't charge for excess usage, Hamill said there would be a "fair use policy", although he doubted 3 would need to waive the big stick. "Our experience on the X-Series is that there are very few people using 4,000 minutes".
On top of the generous VoIP allowance, 3 also permits 10,000 Skype chat messages per month. It's a combination that 3 hopes will attract new customers en masse as groups of families, friends and even businesses move to the Skypephone service to slash their monthly bill for voice and SMS.
Unlike many of the newer Skype-compatible VoIP phones which use Wi-Fi, and thus rely on tracking down a hotspot and not walking out of its range, the first leg of outbound calls on the Skypephone travels over 3's 3G network (although this doesn't attract any flag fall fee).
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The phone, which is a worldwide exclusive to the 3 network, costs $179 outright or is free on any of 3's capped consumer or Talk Business plans. Produced under contract by by leading Chinese ODM Amoi, the Skypephone is a slim handset running on Qualcomm's BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) platform. In addition to the usual creature comforts such as a multimedia player, 2 megapixel camera and microSD card slot, it also comes with a Windows Live instant messaging client.
What sets it apart from smartphones running a Skype software client is the degree to which the ‘Skype experience has been baked into the design. A branded centre button launches into the Skype screen, so that making a Skype call is no different to making a conventional voice call.
Each user's set of Skype contacts is downloaded onto the phone when they log on, with new contacts able to be added on the fly, while an integrated address book lists landline and mobile numbers plus Skype addresses and shows if Skype contacts or online or offline.
At this stage only Skype-to-Skype calls are permitted, although Hamill said support for Skype Out and Skype In - which would allow users to place Skype calls direct to landline and mobile numbers, and receive calls from those numbers straight to their Skype handset - could be added in the future.
Ditto for global roaming, which would currently disable the Skype features once you set foot in another country - even if you're a 3 customer logging onto a 3 network in a country which offers the Skypephone service (the current roster includes the UK, Austria, Hong Kong, Macau, Italy, Sweden and Denmark). Hamill hinted that this was also on the to-do list for "around the middle of next year".