Is a Free Phone Number Enough to Kill Skype?

    May 5, 2006

Don’t bet on it.

America Online is getting ready to announce a voice-over-Internet service that runs over its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Part of the deal: AIM users will get free local phone numbers so people without AIM can reach them through a conventional phone line. Apparently, some are predicting the the lure of a free phone number may kick of a “Skypekiller” meme, since Skype charges about $4 US per month for a SkypeIn line.

AOL will also offer an “unlimited” version for $14.95 per month that will offer unlimited local and long-distance calls to US phone numbers and those in 30 other countries.

A USA Today article quotes AOL Digital Services President John McKinley calling the offering “disruptive,” noting that AIM’s 80 million younger users of the instant messaging client to drop their regular old telephones in favor of a cell phone (which they all already have) and an AIM number.

The problem with this scenario is AIM’s reach.

On Monday’s installment of “For Immediate Release,” (the podcast I co-host with Neville Hobson), I interviewed my 17-year-old daughter about her communciation habits-habits that will undoubtedly translate into the workplace when she and her generation get out of school and begin their careers. Instant messaging plays a huge role, and she touted the benefits of AIM, the key one being that it’s the client all her friends use. Feedback from our non-US listeners was swift. Outside the US, hardly anyone uses AIM; Microsoft’s instant messenger is the preferred app in Europe and Canada, according to our listeners.

All those kids (and others) with AIM phones will be able to dial real numbers in 30 countries outside the US, but those non-US contacts will have to dial a real number to reach their AIM-using US-based friends-and international dialing rates will apply. With Skype, a free download lets anybody talk with anybody.

I’m sure AIM will give a way a lot of free phone numbers, and the VOIP service will get used. But a Skypekiller? I’d be curious to know how many computers will play host to both the AIM client and Skype.

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Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.