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Marguerite Reardon

Staff Writer, CNET

The Internet telephony software Skype has found its way into the business world, as corporate road warriors and remote workers use it to reduce long-distance and cell phone costs.

Most of today’s Skype adherents use it for personal calls, but a growing number of them are also using it to make calls for work.

“I realized while I was traveling overseas how difficult it is for my remote staff and traveling salespeople to communicate with each other,” said Don LeBeau, CEO of Aruba Wireless Networks, a maker of Wi-Fi networking gear. “Skype has been a great tool for helping us increase communication. Not to mention it saves us money.”

Over the past year and a half, Skype’s popularity has exploded. Currently, there are about 23 million users signed up for the service, which allows no-cost phone calls over the Internet, according to the company. By 2008, that number is expected to jump to between 140 million and 245 million, says market research company Evalueserve. As more business customers start using the software, Skype’s subscriber numbers could grow even higher.

In October, LeBeau sent a memo to his top executives at Aruba urging them and the people who report to them to start using Skype, which bears the same name as the company that produces it. Today, many of Aruba’s 170 employees use the software to communicate with colleagues on the road or in any of a dozen or so offices in the United States, Europe and Japan. Aruba has even placed a button on its home page to allow prospective customers to contact the company via Skype.

Aruba isn’t the only company that has discovered Skype. Employees at Ruhrpumpen, an industrial pump manufacturer in Tulsa, Okla., started using Skype last summer to communicate with co-workers and business partners in Asia, Central America and Europe. The company has even put a directory with Skype contacts on its intranet. About 70 people out of the 1,000 that work for the company are registered Skype users.

“One of our business partners introduced it to us,” said Tom Wallbank, an IT manager at Ruhrpumpen. “Now, I use it a few times a week to talk to our guys in Mexico and Germany. And I’m not even one of the heavy users.”

Skype executives have already recognized there is opportunity in the business market. As a result, they plan to introduce a new set of business offerings later this year. The idea is to create a package similar to the free Skype, but with extra features, such as videoconferencing, user groupings and company directories, that business customers would be willing to pay for.

“The Skype for Business offering will address ways to better serve the business community and targeted toward individuals and workgroups, not CIOs for enterprise wide deployments,” said Niklas Zennstrom, CEO and co-founder of Skype, during a keynote address at the Internet Telephony Expo in October.

Skype’s newfound business users say they’re very interested to see what the company has to offer. But selling a service to these companies for a fee won’t be a slam dunk.

“We will definitely check out their new offering when it comes out,” Wallbank said. “Of course, we’ll have to compare it to what others offer. Nothing really beats free.”