With the launch of Skype 5.0 this week, the PC-based voice over IP (VoIP) and messaging service is now integrated with the Facebook social network. While neither Skype nor Facebook are typically considered business platforms, the combination of the two offer many of the benefits and features of unified communications on a budget that small and medium businesses can appreciate: free.
First, let's define unified communications (UC). Admittedly, that is easier said than done. UC is more of a concept than a specific technology. UC is somewhat subjective and can involve combining whichever elements of communications and productivity suit the needs of the organization. For the sake of simplicity, though, let's assume that UC involves melding voice communications, video conferencing, instant messaging, and e-mail.
Skype alone provides most of those elements. Skype established itself as a leading provider of online VoIP communications, and has subsequently also become one of the most widely used video chat services. Cable news networks like CNN frequently use Skype video as a means of conducting remote interviews without having to send a camera crew onsite. With Skype 5.0, group video chats can now be conducted between up to ten parties--expanding the capabilities of Skype as a teleconferencing platform.
Skype also has instant messaging capabilities, but the value of an instant messaging service is directly related to your number of contacts that are available on it, and Skype has never been a leading platform in that regard. Facebook, on the other hand, has more than half a billion members and has surpassed Google as the online destination that users spend the most time with. Essentially, if there is a contact you want to instant message with, odds are good that contact has a Facebook account, and there is a relatively high chance the contact is on Facebook right now.
Neither Skype nor Facebook offers e-mail. However, Facebook does provide a messaging feature which can be used to send messages between individual contacts, or to groups of contacts. The downside, though, is that Facebook messaging relies on the recipient either being on Facebook to see that a message has arrived, or on an e-mail notification being distributed to a third-party e-mail account outside of Facebook or Skype.
Small and medium businesses can take advantage of the alliance between Skype and Facebook, as well as the alliance between Facebook and Microsoft, to leverage Facebook as a communications hub that approximates the features and functions of much more expensive unified communications solutions like those offered by Microsoft and Cisco.
From within Skype, users can view their entire Facebook social network as a phone book, and initiate an SMS text message or VoIP call with a click of the mouse. Video chat, or group video conferencing can be used for client presentations and team meetings with remote parties. Docs.com from Microsoft provides a platform for creating and sharing Microsoft Office documents. All that's really missing is e-mail, and there are plenty of free Web-based solutions available to fill that gap.
For organizations willing to invest a little money, Skype and Facebook can deliver a more comprehensive UC experience. For a fee, Skype can provide the ability to dial in from any phone and place calls through the Skype service, or an actual phone number that anyone can use to contact you even without Skype, or a voicemail box that answers incoming Skype calls even when Skype is offline.
It may not be a perfect unified communications solution, but the Skype-Facebook alliance delivers many of the essential elements and for small and medium businesses without a budget, the price can't be beat.