As someone who has watched Microsoft try and fail to embrace and extend the idea of Voice over IP on more than one occasion, today’s announcement of Microsoft’s purchase of Skype has the feeling of an “all-in” moment at the World Series of Poker. It’s not a stretch to see Microsoft trying to goose the juice for Windows on mobile devices by blending it with the world’s most popular form of voice communication. But is it enough to kill off the cellular carriers’ legacy “minutes” rate plans?
Just yesterday I happened to be in a cellular carrier store, seeing if I could add another phone to my current smartphone plan. What I wanted — and this seems reasonable — was a smaller, flip-architecture phone to make voice calls and sometimes check email. What I didn’t want was a huge addition to my bill since I don’t use my cellular devices to talk that much — I rarely hit my 450-minute a month limit — but the carrier in question had no way to satisfy my desire to have one plan for multiple devices.
Instead, I was told that any “shared” phone plan had to have a minimum voice contract of 1,500 minutes per month — no matter whether I used them or not. Arguing did nothing to help since store personnel aren’t able to modify plans. And I suspect I would find no different a situation at any other major carrier. So even though smartphones, apps and data are all the rage the big-change ante in the cellular contract game is still the voice plan, something we almost never talk about anymore. But Micro-Skype has the potential to change all that, especially when you throw in the chips of partner Nokia.
Verizon Wireless and other carriers may have made noises about partnering with Skype before, but it’s hard to believe they were serious about really enabling an over-the-top carnivore whose very DNA is all about making “minutes” irrelevant. Now you have some big players with big bankrolls who could do some truly innovative things: How about a Windows Smartphone from Sprint, running Skype with unlimited data on the Cleawire WiMAX network? For, say, $50 a month? All you can call and all you can download? With a portable hotspot embedded to beam Wi-Fi to any other device you own, like an iPad?
Right now, of course, this is simply a dream and it may not ever occur given Microsoft’s apparent inability to do anything innovative when it comes to communications. But by buying Skype they have taken the keys to the single most innovative application and service in the voice space, an entity that scares the bejeebers out of the telecom status quo. Let’s see if Ballmer has one more win in him. It’s long past time for the cellular billed minute to finally die.