Today Skype released the latest version of its iPhone app, one that finally gives Skype the power that made it so successful on computers: It can "listen" for calls in the background, so people can reach you even when you're not staring at the app. It can run over any internet connection you have, including cellular 3G network, without extra surcharges. And it fully supports multitasking, so you can open other apps and utilities while on a call.
Previously, the app had to be open to receive calls — the modern day equivalent of sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring. The update not only lets calls come in when you are doing something, anything else on your phone, it lets calls come in when the phone is locked. In other words, the app makes Skype service feel indistinguishable from your regular phone service.
What is different is that Skype calls can come in over Wi-Fi or AT&T's 3G cellular network, and unlike previously, there's no charge for chit-chatting on 3G.
It also works with third-generation iPod Touch models — specifically the 32GB and 64GB models that began selling last September — though of course, these only run on Wi-Fi.
The app, now available at the iTunes App Store, is a huge step forward, and not only for people with family and friends abroad, for whom Skype is an indispensible part of everyday communication. It's also a step forward for those exploring ways to cut back on their cellular voice-call minutes (though any calls running on 3G will still use up data, which is no longer unlimited).
The advent also opens the door for other VOIP providers to innovate on the iPhone. Hopefully developers of many apps, from Google Talk to Line2, will create their own take on the phone-within-a-phone.
As cool as it is — and as eagerly awaited since Apple demonstrated an early version of it back in April — the Skype upgrade has caused some grumbles. Apple just started shipping the iPhone 4, a phone with a front facing camera intended for video-conferencing. The computer versions of Skype all include video support, so some people are mad that the update lacks it.
"Congrats on the multitasking," wrote one customer reviewer on iTunes. "It took you guys long enough. Now where is video calling?!?!"
No doubt that that's the next big project for Skype developers. Still, for now, many will very likely enjoy this new level of VOIP for smart phones.