Can Skype Bring Back the Phone Booth?

Erik Linask : Convergence Corner
Erik Linask

Can Skype Bring Back the Phone Booth?

Phone booths are back?

If you ask today’s younger generations, I’m not sure they even know what a phone booth is.

Thanks to the popularity of Skype, though they may soon find out, thanks to an initiative driven by Enterprise Estonia.  As part of its mission to drive innovation and entrepreneurial spirit in the Baltic nation, Enterprise Estonia commissioned a standalone Skype station, which has been installed at Tallinn’s airport.

The booth, which hardly resembles the coin-eating boxes of the late-20th century, is equipped with a 22-inch monitor, speakers and, of course, a video camera.  Users log into their Skype account and carry on a video conversation as they would via their home PC or laptop.  Since people often neglect to log out from their accounts, a security feature has been added in the form of a floor sensor, which automatically logs users out from their accounts when they move off the panel.

“I am most pleased to have seen Enterprise Estonia take the initiative and AdTech prepare a savvy execution for the design that will fill travelers’ time at the Tallinn Airport with free video calls over Skype,” notes Sten Tamkivi, CEO of Skype Estonia.

While Skype itself has done wonders for adoption of P2P communication over the Internet, it is now also looking for other innovative vendors to take Skype calling to the next level.  The Skype station, built by Estonian firm AdTech, sells for a reasonable $5,600, according to Merilin Pärliof Enterprise Estonia, leading Tamkivi to suggest we may soon be seeing similar kiosks in other airports across the globe.  There will likely be less expensive, scaled down models as well.  AdTech, which was subcontracted for the project by ad agency Brilliant, says it expects to begin mass production later this year.

The idea is an interesting one, considering the widespread adoption of Skype – as of 2010, there were more than 663 million registered users.  But, the traditional phone booth saw its demise as cell phones become increasingly prevalent.  In fact, the Estonian government initiated the removal of all traditional phone booths earlier this year. 

The cell phone phenomenon certainly hasn’t subsided.  In fact, with the introduction of increasingly feature-rich mobile devices, like the HTC Thunderbolt, especially as 4G networks continue to be built out, even video calling will become commonplace on mobile devices, bringing to question to long-term viability of products such as the Skype station.

The other question, of course, is who will pay for them?  Skype-to-Skype calling is free, making it difficult to charge for the service, and one has to wonder, if a maintenance fee associated with the kiosks will turn people away, knowing they can, at the very least make voice calls with any mobile phone already.  Once the units come into mass production, it’s not likely that airports or airlines will be willing to bear the costs, as minimal as the may be.  There are some airports that offer free WiFi service, but most charge $12 or more for access in their terminals.

The important story here is that Skype, having succeeded in effectively dominating the global market for free Internet calling, is actively encouraging other vendors to leverage its technology and find new, innovative ways to allow users to call their friends, families, and colleagues.  It’s that very kind of entrepreneurial spirit that helped launch the Skype phenomenon in Estonia initially, and which has helped drive the communications market to new and exciting heights since.  The one thing these futuristic phone booths haven’t accommodated, though, is Superman.  I’m not sure Clark Kent has enough privacy for his costume change.

Yes, phone booths – or some derivative of them – appear to be on the way back in, but for how long remains to be seen.

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