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Is Skype Robust Enough for Business Use?

Is Skype able to serve businesses as well as it’s serving individuals?

The email header jumped out at me: “Will Dropbox follow the fate of Skype?” The pitch, sent by a PR person, argued that “Skype… a company that was wildly successful in the consumer market [has] not [been] able to convert that success into enterprise adoption” — mainly, the flack argued, because Skype’s service just isn’t business grade.

The Dropbox pitch did not grab me, but the gibe at Skype tantalized, especially in light of Microsoft’s $8.5 billion acquisition of the VoIP provider several years ago, a deal that was pursued, said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, because Microsoft specifically saw a rich future for Skype in the business market.

Which puts the spotlight on two questions: Does Skype deliver adequate security for business users, and does it deliver adequate quality?

Face it: If you are in a hotel room in Oshkosh and you use Skype video-calling to say hi to the tykes back home, you can easily ignore a little latency. And would you care so much if a global intelligence service were transcribing your every word and picture?

The answers are entirely different if you are calling the CEO of your company for an update on an acquisition deal that has been hanging in the wind.

Would you — could you — use Skype for sensitive business calls?

The answers surprise.

Steve Santorelli, an expert with security consultants Team Cymru, wrote in an email to me: “There is, as far as anyone in law enforcement can tell, no documented back door or secret key to decrypt Skype content that is available to either miscreants or the police.”

Understand, every Skype call is encrypted to a 256-bit standard. Barry Castle, product marketing manager of Skype Business Solutions, tells me: “I understand cellular carriers are encrypting to a similar standard.”

Even if a Skype data stream were intercepted and reassembled, it is highly unlikely that a miscreant would be able to do much, if anything, with the data. The encryption is that good.

Which is not to say that Skype is foolproof. Adds Santorelli: “The huge elephant in the room is the risk of compromise of the end-user’s machine. Pop the client” — break into it, that is — “and no level of encryption on the Skype traffic will prevent someone from listening in on your more sensitive conversations.”

That is the problem: Some kind of bug on an end point would deliver a clear voice stream to an eavesdropper, though the same could be said about any other VoIP or cellular service.

Bottom line: “A lot of people have probed Skype’s security and by and large, it has held up well,” says Dan York, chair of the VoIP Security Alliance, aka VoIPsa.

Numbers are elusive, but according to Skype, roughly 35 percent of its traffic appears to be business-related. Much of that is bootleg traffic — the exec who pulls up Skype on an iPad to make a free Skype-to-Skype video call to a colleague in Bangalore, or perhaps who uses it to call home from that Oshkosh hotel room.

But a growing reality is that “people — everybody — use Skype for international calls,” says York, and that is because Skype’s per-minute tariff even using Skype Out is usually a couple pennies per minute, versus the multiples higher that traditional carriers charge. Skype-to-Skype calls, of course, are free.

Business class
Does Skype deliver adequate call quality for business? Jerry Morris, founder of VoIP provider NextLevel Internet, sniffs that Skype calls do not have the same audio quality available in managed-VoIP solutions like those offered by his company and other VoIP providers focused specifically on the business market, such as Avaya or Cisco.

That may be true, though Skype vigorously disputes that its quality is deficient. But a reality is that our ears have been retrained by cellular networks to accept low quality audio that 15 years ago we would have loudly protested.

Let’s say call quality is in the ears of the listener and leave it at that.

I ask Skype’s Castle the billion-dollar question: Does Skype itself work on Skype?

He chuckles, “We talk about working at Skype speed — we use Skype extensively. Every aspect of our business is Skype-based. My real-time communication is entirely done through Skype.”

Castle points not just to VoIP, but also to videocalls, videoconferencing, IM’ing within a Skype session — a wide range of services built into the company’s platform. “We have created a more efficient way of working,” says Castle. “That is why we use it.”

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