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Skype in the lead of booming Net phone business

The Scandinavian company is gaining converts from across the globe with its free and easy-to-use Internet phone service

NY TIMES , NEW YORK

How big a deal will Skype turn out to be? I have no idea whether the company itself, which was founded one year ago, will someday come to epitomize and dominate a particular booming business, the way Google, eBay and Amazon now do. But I feel confident that the service it provides will be attractive to most people who give it a serious look.

Skype, a made-up term that rhymes with "tripe," is the most popular and sexiest application of VoIP, which doesn't rhyme with anything. VoIP -- sometimes pronounced letter by letter, like CIA, and at other times as a word -- stands for voice over Internet protocol. Essentially, it is a way of allowing a computer with a broadband connection to serve as a telephone.

This new form of conveying voice messages has so many advantages over traditional systems that the whole telecommunications industry is scrambling to see how fast it can shift traffic onto the Internet. AT&T, for example, is no longer recruiting new home customers, but it is offering many new VoIP services. Dozens of other companies -- including new ones like Vonage -- are selling VoIP services, too.

Skype's distinction is that, for now at least, it is the easiest, fastest and cheapest way for individual customers to begin using VoIP.

Cheap and easy

It works this way: First, you download free software from skype.com. Skype runs on most major operating systems, including Windows XP and 2000, Linux, Pocket PC for portable devices and, as of this summer, Mac OS. On three of the computers on which I installed it, it ran with no tweaking at all. On the fourth, I had to change one setting for the sound card, following easy instructions on the site.

While running, Skype sits in a little window, like an instant-messenger program, and lets you to talk with other users in two ways. If the other person has Skype installed, you can talk as long as you want, free, and with sound quality that is startlingly better than that of a normal phone connection. Over the years, I have learned to say "that's `F' as in Frank" when spelling my last name on the phone, because normal phone lines don't carry the frequencies that distinguish "F" from "S." Listening to a conversation on Skype, by contrast, is like listening to a radio program over streaming audio. The sound comes from speakers that are built into most laptop computers or attached to most desktops.

You'll need a microphone. Most laptops come with nearly invisible but quite effective tiny microphones embedded near the keyboard. (It may look odd to be talking to your laptop while using Skype, but in the cell phone age, we've all seen worse.) At either a desktop or a laptop computer, you can use a separate microphone or, less awkwardly, a phone handset or headset that plugs into a computer port. Skype sells headsets for $15 and up. I got the cheapest model, which works fine.

Calling anywhere

You can also reach people who don't use Skype, with a new service called SkypeOut. This allows you to dial nearly any cellular or land-line telephone number in any country and talk. Though it isn't free, it's really cheap. Skype's prices are in euros -- its founders are Scandinavian, the main programmers are Estonian and its headquarters are in Luxembourg -- and they average two or three US cents a minute, at any time of day. With a credit card, you buy calling time in units of 10 euros (US$12.18), which are deducted automatically as you talk.

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