Skype Debuts Formal Channel Partner Program

Skype on Tuesday took the wraps off a long-awaited channel partner program, one that Skype hopes will bring on solution providers as both Skype integrators and Skype evangelists as the popular VoIP service furthers its business enterprise ambitions.

The goal, according to Skype, is not to resell the Skype platform through the channel -- most of Skype's services, such as Skype-to-Skype calling are free and paid services are still bought directly from Skype. Rather, Skype hopes to create a network of partners who can incorporate Skype into networking and infrastructure solutions for interested customers.

Interest in Skype by businesses, the company argues, is at an all-time high.

"The main reason we're doing this is that Skype is looking to offer more complex business solutions through things like Skype Connect and Skype Manager," said Ian Robin, director of sales and commercial development, Skype for Business, in an interview with CRN. "So we were asking ourselves, OK, where do businesses buy solutions? They buy them from the channel."

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Skype has already brought onboard 20 VARs and systems integrators as part of the Skype Channel Partner Program, and it is seeking new applications to be certified on Skype through a sign-up page:

"We have had great success virally," Robin said. "But business adoption requires things you can't touch. It requires infrastructure and telecommunications equipment but it also requires partnering with the channel to provide configuration, maintenance, support, and things we can't address ourselves."

Qualified enrollees in the Skype Channel Partner Program receive sales training and marketing materials, customer tracking and reporting tools for helping customers understand and manage Skype use among their employees, and support and account management from Skype executives. In addition, partners are also allowed to brand their solutions with the Skype logo.

"The channel is there to sell services to Skype customers," Robin explained. "We're providing everything you'd expect from a channel program to let them [VARs] go out and be able to say, we know what we're talking about, here's how Skype works and here's how you can get it into your business."

Skype has in the past year released a number of tools to help promote Skype's place in existing PBX and UC infrastructures. One, released last week, is Skype Connect 1.0 -- an updated version of what was formerly known as Skype for SIP, and allows users to connect Skype to their existing systems to make outbound and receive inbound Skype communications.

Skype Connect, which was originally launched in beta in March 2009, is certified to work with PBX and UC systems from Cisco, Avaya, ShoreTel, SIPfoundry, Siemens and Freetalk, and can connect older PBXes using gateways from VoSKY, Grandstream and AudioCodes. According to Skype, Connect boasts more than 2,400 active global users. It's managed through Skype Manager, a Web-based tool through which users can access a number of Skype support features, including realtime chat with Skype customer service representatives.

Next: The Role Of Channel Partners

Robin said the role of partners in evangelizing Skype will be critical, especially given what David Gurle, general manager, Skype for Business, told CRN last week were "misperceptions" about the service. The perceived lack of control, Robin said, is just plain wrong.

"Everything can be held within the Skype Manager," he said. "You've already got Skype being adopted -- people tend to use it personally -- and the IT administrators and the network administrators say, I've got all these Skype users and they're out of control. Well, now we've got the tool, which is Skype Manager, but we need the channel to deliver the message, and work symbiotically."

Skype's channel program will be s U.S.-only at launch, and for the time being, Robin said, only have one tier of partnership.

"We don't believe it's an an advanced enough stage to have more than one," he said. "Maybe it'll be something we do, but for the moment, we've got to keep it simple."

Patrick Carley, CEO of Precedent Technologies, a Stockbridge, Ga.-based solution provider, is one of Skype's existing 20 U.S. channel partners, and said what appealed to him is being able to use interest in Skype as a business conversation.

"Skype is a well-known brand and I've used it personally for years," Carley said in a statement e-mailed to CRN. "I believe Skype's business solutions appeal to our diverse client base -- be it smaller companies that are just getting started and need to watch their infrastructre costs closely or larger companies who may be interested in using Skype to supplement their international communications."

The program arrives just as Skype prepares to make its initial public offering (IPO). Skype on Aug. 9 filed a form S-1 with the SEC indicating it plans to offer $100 million in shares, and that both its subscribers and revenues are significantly up year-over-year, but its profits in the first half of 2010 are down, and only some 6 percent of its "average monthly connected users" pay for the service.

Skype's popularity -- it boasts an average of 124 million users a month, worldwide -- have also made it an acquisition target. Former owner Ebay unloaded a 65 percent majority stake in Skype to private investors last fall, but late last month came rumors that Cisco would make a play for Skype in advance of its IPO.

Skype has been something of a cinderella story in communications IT since it launched in 2004, and according to TeleGeography Research, it accounted for 13 percent of all international calls in 2009. It faces new competition, however, from similar IP calling services, especially Google Voice.