Once synonymous with consumer-grade voice-over-IP and a target for the ire of network managers everywhere, Skype is changing tack. It now wants to attract more business users, and its plans for doing that include new tools for managing groups of users - plus the claim that it is "unified communications made simple."

The company says that according to its own research, 30 percent of its 300 million or so users already use it for business. Of course, many of those probably come from its viral spread into the business traveller segment - workers who installed Skype to stay in touch with home while travelling, and then realised they could use it to call colleagues too.

So now it is working to enhance its business appeal. It has plug-ins that let you make calls from a web browser or from Microsoft Outlook, for instance, plus a click-to-call tool for websites, and a management console that lets you manage a group of user accounts - allocating Skype-out call credit and so on.

Agile no longer?

And where once Skype aimed to make its application 'agile' to help it get around blocks such as firewalls, it has now reversed direction. It is working with traffic-control specialist Facetime to enable network managers to lock out features that they don't want their users to have, such as file transfers.

Ian Robin, who runs the company's Skype for Business programme in the UK, says that it's small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that are the main target, not enterprises. He adds though that, world-wide, Skype has 17 customers with over 2000 users under management, and two - which he won't name, saying only that they're in Asia - with over 10,000.

However, there are limits on how far Skype is willing to go to accommodate enterprise needs. Robin says that it won't compromise on voice encryption, for instance, meaning that calls can't easily be recorded within the network.

"In some ways we're too secure," he says. "You can't monitor calls and for some organisations, such as financial services, that's a problem."

But for many of the SMBs looking to get into IP telephony, videoconferencing and unified comms in general, Skype certainly seems an attractive option.

For instance, online tutoring company Toniks uses it to provide language lessons via videoconferencing. "We looked at other products that offer pictures and voice, and found Skype was the best for quality," says Toniks founder Karen Hollands.

Readers who've tried Skype on a home PC look very dubiously at that claim, but Hollands qualifies it by adding that it does depend on the quality of the user's audiovisual set-up, so she issues advisories to customers suggesting the minimum level of gear they'll need.

It means though that tutors can work from home, and pupils can take classes wherever they can get a connection - and these days that's pretty much anywhere in the world, she says: "I have one client who regularly travels to third-world countries, and he still gets good connections."

"It helped me set up and grow my business," agrees Emma Jones, who set up the Enterprise Nation website and wrote the business manual, 'Spare Room Start Up' to help other budding entrepreneurs. "I chose Skype because it's cheap and it has a simple message - it's all in plain and simple language."

A virtual water-cooler

It means a virtual team can chat much the same as staff in an office would chat in the kitchen or at the water-cooler, she adds.

Cheapness is an important part of the message, says Ian Robin - although he goes on to say that Skype is still funded only by its call revenue, with no income at all from advertising and the like.

He argues that this is an element that businesses can no longer ignore. "The older generation is used to paying for things, and thinks a 10 percent saving is doing well. These days a graduate goes into business and their first thought is that calls should be free," he says.

"I think unified communications is a difficult concept for SMBs to grasp - without us, it is complex and expensive," claims Robin. "The key thing is we've penetrated globally, we have a large number of users, and it is free to download."