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Aside from the pressure for any large tech company to be in all the hot tech areas, there is a very important fit for Skype with eBay.
At first glance, this looks like late 90’s internet boom craziness. eBay and Skype would seem to have little in common. This morning, listening to the Marketplace report on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” -- one of the best news programs available – I understood the point. Skype represents a way for eBay to break some really tough barriers.
eBay is presently limited to transactions which can occur with limited interaction between users who remain anonymous yet build a certain amount of trust through the application of market forces to personal accountability. By adding Skype to this mix, eBay will be (in theory) able to provide a way for potential buyers and sellers to communicate more directly while still remaining anonymous. The ability to communicate with a tool like Skype through a simple click to ask mechanism allows a more detailed discussion of larger or more complex items to carry on, thus making a sale more likely. There are two big problems with this approach in my opinion.
From a business standpoint, purchasing Skype is an outdated way of accomplishing this goal. The 21st century approach is to adopt support for Skype or a similar technology through a published interface, allowing the marketplace – both open source and commercial – to fill that need. eBay’s acquisition of PayPal would never have happened if PayPal hadn’t first come along to fill that specific need. eBay may hope to capture a large part of Skype’s fanatical grass roots community of up and coming technology literate young people; but this has proven a group very resistant to being co-opted. VOIP is a hot technology right now, and the underpinnings are just beginning to get strong enough to allow all sorts of utility level, low cost applications to emerge. Purchasing Skype will not accomplish the purchase of a long term Skype based community.
A more important, subtle, and dangerous problem with adding an ability to quickly speak between buyer and seller is the radical increase in the chance for fraud. The spoken word is the confidence artists most practiced tool. We humans are social animals. A practiced skill and knowledge of human nature, a little psychology, and a reassuring voice open the realm of the less ethical telemarketers to the anonymity of the online auction. On top of the risk of deliberate fraud, eBay’s global scope works against it when direct voice communication is added. Cultural differences become amplified in a media which is real time and does not allow for a careful translation and double checking of content.
Unless all communication is recorded, accidental misunderstandings and deliberate fraud will increase as a result of this addition. At the same time, a combination of ethnic bias, cultural expectations, and dialectic misunderstandings will scuttle some otherwise positive interactions.
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a Singapore buyer:
F: "We would deliver x tons fresh corn at y dollars, how do you like it?"
F: "No, no fresh but packed in boxes"
S: "Also can"
F: "We don't do canned food, but we can use bins"
S: "Also can"