Mark Ritson on Branding: Skype's call is worth the disruption

It all began in the car park behind my college bar in 1992. Despite an overdraft even more impressive than my own, my best mate Simon had bought himself a mobile phone. Even more impressive, in return for a pint of beer (the common currency back then) he was prepared to let me make a call on it. By gingerly tapping in my parents' phone number and uttering the immortal words 'Mother, I am calling you from a car park', I made my first faltering steps into the world of mobile communications.

Exactly a decade later it was Simon who turned up at my London flat with unusual white earphone sockets attached to his head. With a flourish he whipped out a weird-looking white box and we spent the next two hours drinking beer (some things had not changed) and debating the mind-boggling concept of an iPod that was the size of a Walkman, but which could accommodate 200 times as many songs.

According to Geoffrey Moore, author of Crossing the Chasm, Simon can be found slap-bang at the start of the adoption curve because he is an early adopter. He lives for innovations and spreads his discoveries down the curve to people like me in the 'early majority'.

This week, Simon was at it again. I have received a stream of obtuse emails from him that are all confusingly similar:

From: simon.lill@xxxxx.co.uk

To: m.ritson@xxxxx.co.uk

R U Online? Get Skype and call me. Dead easy.

For those of you even further down the adoption curve than me, Skype enables users to make voice calls over the internet. Users can call another email address, which is free, or a real phone number, which is charged at the traditional phone line connection rate of 1p a minute.

While this form of voice-over-internet service has been banging around for years, Skype is notable for three reasons. First, you don't need special hardware to set up the system. You simply download the software and use your existing PC microphone and speakers to make the calls. Second, it is growing. Fast. Almost 75m people are already registered to use the service and when that long list includes techno-muppets like me, a deluge of mass users cannot be far away. Third, Skype was purchased by eBay last month for $2.6bn (£1.5bn). Both the amount paid and the company paying it are instructive: this is about to get big.

Skype is a classic example of a disruptive technology. Disruptive technologies are the bane of all marketers, as they do not evolve gradually within the traditional para-meters of customer expectations and so are invisible to market research.

Previous examples, such as personal computers, digital cameras and automobiles, grew slowly, then suddenly disrupted an established category and its incumbent brands.

Skype looks particularly pernicious because the internet allows disruptive technologies to both evolve their services and acquire new users at quantum speeds. It is also threatening one of the slowest, least customer-focused businesses in the history of marketing: telecommunications. The idea of a lumbering BT taking on a nimble Skype brings new perspective to the David versus Goliath scenario.

Consider the four Ps of Skype and you begin to grasp its potential. Product: its integration into existing software packages and constant evolution means it is already superior to traditional fixed- and mobile phone lines.

Place: it is available globally via a download that takes less than two minutes. Price: it is free, regardless of where you are calling. Promotion: no doubt you'll be getting an email from your equivalent of Simon in the next week or so.

30 SECONDS ON... SKYPE

- Skype is a free software download that allows users to make voice calls over the internet. Calls to other Skype users are free.

- Most Skype users live in Europe or Asia; less than one-eighth live in the US and Canada.

- The software can be used on equip-ment running Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and Pocket PC software, and calls are highly secure because of the system's end-to-end encryption.

- The system's SkypeOut facility allows users to call people on fixed-line or mobile phones. The charges for these calls are calculated on the basis of the recipient's location, not where they are being called from. The SkypeOut Global rate, which applies to the most popular call destinations, is equivalent to about 1p a minute.

- SkypeIn provides users with a regular number; Skype also has a voicemail facility and allows users to forward calls to traditional phones.

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