Skype releases Android app to the public: the pros and the cons

Tuesday, popular instant messaging and VoIP chat client Skype officially launched its Skype application for devices running Android 2.1 and up. While Skype is one of the most popular VoIP clients, bringing it to the Android platform has been quite problematic. With this release, we see those problems have persisted.

What it does

Skype for Android lets users log into their Skype accounts, sync their contacts with the native Android phonebook, see what contacts are online, send instant messages to contacts, make free skype-to-skype voice calls over Wi-Fi or 3G data connection, place calls to non-Skype numbers for a low rate, and receive incoming calls on their Skype number.

Why it's important

Skype has proven to be an affordable solution for international calling, and is therefore very popular in Europe and Asia. Prior to the release of Skype for mobile devices, users could only place calls on their PCs. It wouldn't be uncommon, for example, to stay in a youth hostel and find lots of young travelers chatting loudly into their notebook computers with friends and family back home. With the application on their phones, it becomes a more natural and convenient experience.

Why it's problematic in the United States

Since Skype piggybacks on a data connection and does not go through the billable circuits of a carrier network, it means users have the ability to talk a lot without paying a lot. This is something the mobile carriers do not take lightly.

Because Android is meant to cater to the needs of device manufacturer and carrier alike, the option to block VoIP applications is left open to the carriers, just as it is on the Apple iPhone.

Skype had been testing its service on Android as far back as 2008 according to reports, and the first version of Skype Lite for Android launched in January 2009. The app, unfortunately was little more than an instant messaging client.

Andy Rubin, co-founder of Android and Google's Vice President of Mobile Platforms made it clear that it wasn't Android, it was the mobile carriers that were forcing Skype and other VoIP apps to be Wi-Fi only solutions.

Early in 2010, U.S. carrier Verizon approved unlimited Skype-to-Skype calling over 3G, for Android and BlackBerry users. So Verizon Android users have had access to the Skype application for nearly 8 months, and customers of other carriers who use this application will only be able to place VoIP calls over Wi-Fi.

In short, everyone in the US who could use Skype to its fullest have had access to this app for months.

Other Problems

Device support looks to be especially problematic for the Skype application right now, as well. Many users have reported that there is no support for Samsung Galaxy S phones, and Skype UK blogger Peter Parkes said devices need a minimum screen resolution of 480x320 pixels, so devices like the HTC Wildfire and Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 mini are not supported.

Skype says the app runs smoothly on the HTC Desire, HTC Legend, Google Nexus One, Motorola Milestone XT720 (Droid X,) and Motorola Milestone (Droid.) So far, the main body of users excited to have Skype are HTC Desire owners, but even many of them have complained about the 15MB size of the application and its inability to be launched from SD memory.

Furthermore, Skype for Android is not available in the Android Market in China or Japan, even though the app supports Japanese and Simplified/Traditional Chinese languages.

Who benefits from this release?

Skype users in areas of dense Wi-Fi coverage, users who don't mind having to be locked into a hotspot, or users where VoIP-over-3G is allowed can all enjoy a reliable and surprisingly high-quality voice calling service.

The application is available for free in the Android Market or can be downloaded by pointing your mobile browser to skype.com/m.

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