updated 5/3/2006 8:54:42 AM ET 2006-05-03T12:54:42

Skype, eBay Inc.'s Internet telephone subsidiary, is extending its reach with "Skypecasts" — free audio conferences for up to 100 participants.

Skype is used mainly for person-to-person calling but also has a conferencing feature for up to 10 people, who can all speak at the same time.  A Skypecast, however, will be moderated by a host who controls when someone can speak.

The service launches Wednesday in an "early preview" form, said Skype's vice president of global marketing, Saul Klein.

Users will be able to find Skypecasts on the Skype Web site, where all the conferences will be listed publicly.

Skype envisions Skypecasts as a way for people to discuss shared interests and hobbies.  Six Apart Ltd., the parent of blogging and networking services TypePad, Movable Type and LiveJournal, plans to promote Skypecasts as a way of expanding online communities, Klein said.

The term "Skypecast" could cause some confusion among bloggers — it has been used to describe a recording of an interview conducted via Skype, then distributed as a "podcast."

Skype is also releasing a new beta, or trial version, of its main application that includes the option to send text messages to cell phones for a small fee.

Other new features:

  • Contacts in Microsoft Outlook can be called directly from Skype.
  • Groups of contacts can be shared among users.
  • Users will be able to pay for services like calls to landline phones without leaving the application. In the previous version of the software, users went to Skype's Web site to pay.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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