eBay Today, eBell Tomorrow?

It's been less than a week since eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) announced its purchase of privately held Skype Technologies for more than $2.6 billion. The projected benefits and detriments to eBay's business have already been analyzed ad nauseam. Did eBay pay too much? Where are the synergies? Why is an e-commerce company getting into the phone business? In my opinion, investors would be better served by asking a different question: What will this deal do for Skype?

Few analysts deny that eBay paid a hefty sum for a company that's only projected to deliver $60 million in revenue in 2005. Even with Skype's revenues expected to grow to more than $200 million next year, and several potential ways to monetize the integration of both company's products, the deal's upside for eBay remains unclear to many investors. In one sense, Skype's Internet communications paradigm suggests the giddy 1990s, when Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) convinced the market that buyers would flock to the radically new notion of purchasing books via the Internet. From a less optimistic perspective, however, it reeks of Webvan, where grand plans to sell groceries via the Internet fell completely flat.

What's in it for Skype?
Ultimately, I believe the near-term value of the eBay-Skype deal lies in merging the two companies' customer bases. With the 54 million active Skype users worldwide only overlapping 1% of eBay's 157 million users, simply cross-marketing services should increase growth across both businesses.

While eBay gets free exposure to a new global customer list that would have otherwise cost them millions (if not billions) of marketing dollars, Skype's contagious offerings will now be propped up in prime online real estate. As if signing up 150,000 new users daily wasn't enough, Skype will soon be dangled in front of over 150 million potential new users -- an audience that is particularly Internet-savvy and possibly willing to sample Skype's paid premium services.

The financial resources eBay commands could be put to good use in Skype's corner as well. While Skype's tremendous success to date has been largely achieved through viral marketing, penetrating deeper into various markets will start to cost more. eBay's investment in its new purchase's operations and strategic plans will help Skype become the de facto global communications company, limited only by the penetration of broadband service (since all of Skype's services require a high-speed data connection).

A new era calling
To get a glimpse of what's in eBay CEO Meg Whitman's head, you have to understand this: Skype isn't just another phone service. It's much, much bigger than that. This new network isn't tied to fixed-line telephones and traditional voice calls. Skype aims to let people worldwide to connect easily with each other via voice, text chat, and file and image sharing. Setting up Skype on your computer is much simpler and more useful than getting a new phone line wired into your house -- or dialing all those confusing country codes to Tanzania.

eBay's ambitious grab at Skype heralds an apogee in telecom history, the point where a blue-chip public company has finally endorsed the new generation of Internet communication. This radical, Rule-Breaking shift has been slowly developing under the surface for years. Until recently, all of the giant incumbent phone companies had fought this macro trend. They lost. Now, companies such as SBC (NYSE: SBC  ) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) have begun abandoning their legacy circuit-switched voice networks and branching out into flashier wireless and packet-switched data offerings in a frantic effort to stay relevant (and alive). In fifty years, we'll likely look back at this era as the evaporation of the Bell System and the birth of the broadband age.

The fear that eBay's purchase of Skype represents an unproductive and distracting foray into telecom, wholly unrelated to eBay's core Internet auction business, is a misplaced concern. Traditional telecom companies are a dying breed, and eBay isn't buying into one of them. Instead, it wants to be a new-fangled entity that allows people to communicate, connect, and transact business easily worldwide - a competency it's willing to pay billions for today.

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Fool contributorDave Mock will one day wow his kids with stories of dial tones, rotary dialers, and phones anchored to a wall. He owns no shares of companies mentioned here.


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