Call this the ultimate bar brawler question among telephony geeks: Is Skype business-grade quality, or is it best used for calling the folks back in County Donegal on the odd Sunday for free? (See: It's Too Soon to Hang Up on Skype.)
It's a simple question, yes, but it spawns all the vitriol that asking baseball fans if Roger Clemens should be inducted into the Hall of Fame provokes.
Some experts, like the VoIP blogger Andy Abramson, are adamant that Skype quality has plummeted since the Microsoft acquisition a little over a year ago. Abramson insisted in an interview with me (conducted over Skype, by the way) that the quality of Skype Out calls to landlines has gotten substantially worse, particularly as Microsoft has begun directing IM traffic to Skype and away from Messenger.
"Calls are being dropped," he said. "It was a much simpler world when Skype started 12 years ago." Now there are many telephone systems and connections. It's no longer a vanilla world of voice, and Skype has not kept up with the many changes. "The world is waiting for the next Skype, and it won't be Skype."
Confession time: I have been making the bulk of my business calls over Skype for the last two months. So far, I am reasonably pleased with the call quality. It could be better; some calls do drop. However -- and this is key -- it is no worse than the cellphone calls I had done my work with until a move a couple months ago to a cellular unfriendly neighborhood.
In September, Skype vowed to improve its call quality with the rollout of the Opus specification. Skype said Opus will deliver CD-quality sound, pretty much regardless of the quality of the Internet connection.
Reality: Skype is by far the most popular free or nearly free VoIP calling service on the planet. Statistics show that it has 31 million users, and 35 percent of small businesses use it as their primary communications tool.
"There is now much more usage in small business," said Dan Roche, a vice president at the Webcasting company TalkPoint. Skype has pulled its weight and then some in internal communications, where co-workers -- perhaps in the same office, perhaps in different countries -- use Skype for video calling, file sharing, and a range of connections suited to today's dispersed workforces. The quality may not be quite what an executive wants for a business call to a client or a prospect, he said, but when it's internal chitchat, what's the harm?
Used selectively, Skype appears to deliver what executives want, at least in particular cases. David Gosse, CEO of the social collaboration tool provider Tracky, called Skype "best of breed in its space."
For this blog, I heard from dozens of small businesses. Many are using Skype for all their communications. In bigger companies, the use case tends more toward internal communications (also private calls; the traveling exec calling home from a hotel room for a free video chat with the family). But in companies of all sizes, little by little, Skype use is growing, and there is no real competitor.
Where does that leave Abramson and a few other telephony wonks who have leveled thick criticism at Skype's quality? They aren't necessarily wrong, but the game, and how to keep score, are changing fast.
There is a 900-pound gorilla in this room: cellular calling. For many in business, it has become the main way to make voice calls. And in most of the country, cellular just does not deliver top-grade call quality. The pertinence? As cell calls push the quality bar ever lower, it gets easier for Skype to shine. Frankly, our telephony norm today is far lower than what it was in 2000.
Can you hear me now?