Internet phone firm Skype Technologies Thursday launched a new service for small businesses, which consists of new hardware, improvements to programs and a website dedicated to small businesses.
The Skype for Business brand, targeting small businesses both for free and fee-based services, is aimed at giving small companies access to some of the telecommunications services historically reserved for big corporations, company officials said.
"When we launched Skype, we really had no idea it would become so popular among businesses," said Saul Klein, vice president of global marketing of the Luxembourg company, which was bought last September by U.S. online auctioneer EBay Inc.
Skype offers software that allows people to make free calls over the Internet from their computers as well as premium services, such as Skype-Out, which charges customers for calls made from PCs to regular phones.
The company created a sensation in 2003 when it started offering a simple, easy-to-use computer-based program for people to make calls - and bypass long-distance and international rates charged by phone companies.
Traditionally considered as a consumer service application, Skype claims that 30 percent of its 75 million subscribers use the software for business, and almost half of these businesses are small with fewer than 10 employees, the company said.
The company's new website, skype.biz, serves as a centerpiece designed to provide information and downloads that make using Skype easier.
As part of its push into the business market, Skype also unveiled Thursday third-party products to make conference calls with as many as 500 people and to translate calls in English into French, Spanish, Cantonese or Mandarin.
Such third-party products include speaker phones, cordless Internet phones and electronic switching gear, as well as software programs to share documents and presentations over the computer during calls.
Although its free program lets users make free calls from their computers, Skype generated an estimated 60 million dollars last year from fee-based services, such as those allowing users to call people on regular phones and use voice mail.
Founded by Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, the two technologists who created the Kazaa file-sharing program, Skype began taking a bite out of the conventional telephone business, which already was reeling from falling long-distance prices and rising competition.
Skype now has become nearly synonymous with Internet telephony and is used as a verb among devotees, however, the company is facing competition from Internet giants such as Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc., which are embedding voice calling programs into their instant messaging and e-mail programs, industry analysts said.
Meanwhile, phone giants such as AT&T also have adopted Internet telephony to lower their costs and to offer expanded services to customers, particularly in the lucrative corporate market.