Reach for the Skypes

I love Skype – it’s one of the most-used utilities on my Mac, and a vital business tool.

There are some who don’t understand this, chiefly because they think Skype is about making cheap phone calls. Of course, it’s very good at that too: I dread to think how much I might have clocked up in phone bills on my last holiday if I hadn’t had Skype and the hotel wifi network. It’s also the easiest way I know to set up conference calls.

But mine is configured so that when I double-click on a name, it pops up a chat window, not an audio connection. Though, I admit, the first thing I type is often ‘Are you free for a quick call?’ But that’s so much more polite and… well, British… than simply bursting a ringing phone into someone’s day without so much as a ‘by your leave’.

At other times, the chat window is all I want. I can drop quick text messages in there, like ‘Can you remind me of the login for this URL?’, and it’s generally quicker and less hassle for everyone involved than any other way of transferring that information.

The real power comes when you’re combining the two – a conversation and a chat window. If you’ve ever tried dictating a URL to someone so that you can peruse a web page together while talking on the phone, you’ll appreciate the power of a cut, paste and click to keep things moving along. And, gosh, I haven’t started talking about video calls, about screen-sharing, about file transfer… And the fact that, if you’re willing to pay a few pence, you can send text messages from it, which is so much easier than typing on a phone keyboard.

Anyway, the degree to which you too will discover this brave new world of communicative wonderfulness depends on two things:

  • How many of your friends know your Skype address (so put it in your email signatures)
  • Whether you run it most of the time (so set it to start up when you log in)

Skype first became really important for me when one of my former companies was headquartered in a house with a studio in the garden. Half of the team worked in the house, and half in the shed, so having a quick, lightweight method of communication between the two was important.

When we outgrew that, we moved to an open-plan office. Open-plan offices are things that people used to think were a good idea because they hadn’t tried them. Then commercial landlords realised that it was a much more convenient way to let out office space, so they told their clients, “Oh yes, everybody’s doing this now”. They still continue to exist because the people making the property decisions aren’t writers or software developers, who need peace, quiet and concentration, punctuated by a modicum of social interaction over caffeine-dispensing equipment, to be really productive.

So, in many offices, you have big open spaces filled with people wearing headphones and listening to music loud enough to drown out the distractions of the phone calls around them. They’re more isolated than if they were in different rooms. Managers seem to like this arrangement, because when they walk in they see large numbers of people beavering away, and they fail to realise that those people are beavering about two-thirds as efficiently as they might beaver. Factor that into your rent-per-square-foot…

Anyway, I digress, but the result was that Skype continued to be important when we were all in one room, not to talk to people at the far end of the garden, but for reaching those who were just a couple of desks away but in a completely different musical genre.

If you spend much time sitting in front of a computer, you owe it to yourself to run Skype and get your friends and colleagues doing so too. Yes, there are other systems, but few that run on Windows, Linux, Mac, Android and iOS and give you such a variety of different communication styles.

One final tip for Mac users: the current version of Skype, version five-point-something, is generally agreed to be horrible. Well, not horrible, exactly – in fact, I think it looks quite nice – but it does have ideas above its station and wants to take over your entire desktop. Fortunately, this feeling that it’s got just a bit too big for its boots is so widespread that the previous version, 2.8, is still available from the Skype website on its own download page a couple of years after its supposed replacement was rolled out. Grab a copy and make a backup, in case it goes away…

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© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser