With its core functionality – Skype calling — getting commoditized, it makes perfect sense for San Francisco-based iSkoot to look at new horizons and reboot itself. With a technology underpinning that is more valuable than just a conduit for cheap calls, the company is transforming itself into a mobile platform that helps bring the web services common on expensive superphones to cheaper and more mass market phones.
It is a smart and logical move – especially if you consider the mortality rate among VoIP-related startups. iSkoot is lucky to have the cushion of $32.5 million in funding from the likes of Khosla Ventures and Charles River Ventures while it executes its reboot.
iSkoot got started with the idea of delivering Skype services to mobile handsets. It wanted to sell the whole solution to mobile carriers who could in turn deliver Skype to their customers. Talk about mission impossible – the company signed up 3, a 3G mobile service provider in the UK, and eventually expanded to eight countries. It has struggled to find larger acceptance among carriers. Skype recently introduced its own mobile client for Android (Skype Lite), and it is only a matter of time before other variants show up. In other words, a reboot makes perfect sense for iSkoot. And they have the technology for it.
When building its Skype-only offering, iSkoot built a network and developed an architecture that had all the location and presence information about the users. It also had the ability to run a Skype-client in the server but allow the thin client on the phone to control (and use it.) Then, in September 2008, it acquired Social.IM which had developed real-time communication and desktop notifications that allowed it to deliver new message alerts, information and content to social network or online community members. iSkoot wanted to extend that to the mobile.
By marrying its location and presence information with Social.IM’s notification and push technology, iSkoot has now developed a mobile client that can receive live updates, multitask and use many web applications on lower-priced phones. Push, pull and multitasking are extremely hard. Only a handful of mobile operating systems such as BlackBerry are able to do it well.
iSkoot recently launched the fruits of its efforts without much fanfare. You can use the application, dubbed Notifier, on some of AT&T’s phones by downloading it from the AT&T Media Mall. It allows folks to access web services such as Gmail and Facebook on their feature phones. However, to understand where iSkoot is going, one needs to look beyond the client.
What iSkoot has done is developed a platform for mobile phone companies to offer many services. On a PC, we can download many different applications – browser, email, instant messaging and others – and each one creates a separate connection to our network. Each one consumes a lot of CPU power and quite a bit of bandwidth, though only rarely do we kill the network.
Wireless networks, by comparison, are bandwidth constrained, and featherweight processors power lower-end mobile phones. In order for these phones to mimic their smartphone brethren, the iSkoot client creates a single connection to the network and acts as a conduit to all types of web services. (Citrix does something similar on the desktops.)
The next step for iSkoot would be to marry its client with a mobile OS and deliver an experience very much like the INQ’s Facebook Phone. For mobile carriers, an iSkoot-type solution would be a good way to offer more lucrative data services to its clients, all the while controlling bandwidth consumption — and, more importantly, keeping a tight leash on their customers.
Mobile carriers are scared of a future in which devices such as the iPhone reduce them to a dumb pipe provider. Unlike the wired web, where carriers have little control on what services we use, mobile operators are fighting to control the mobile web experience. They tried it with things like their on-deck stores and WAP. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they use technologies like iSkoot to create a new walled garden, though one with a perception of openness.
In that process, there’s a good chance iSkoot might actually find a better future for itself.