SkypeOne of the reasons that the Palm PDA was so successful was that 3com (the original developers) actively encouraged an ecosystem of hobbyist and professional developers (one man bands to multinationals) to develop software (and hardware add-ons) for their platform.

Years later part of the reason for the iPods ubiquity is the sheer number of add-ons to connect it to just about everything from your home stereo, your car or your jacket. Sadly they've rather tarnished that with their iPod Tax though in their defense it has added a level of comfort to buying an accessory.

Roll forward a couple more years and Skype are doing just the same in order to help differentiate themselves from the rest of the VoIP pack.

By making an API available to partners, certifying hardware to work with the platform and encouraging retailers to leverage (and promote) their brand they have created an ecosystem around their platform that gives them an advantage that most of the other VoIP players (be the Vonage or GizmoProject) can't compete with (and it helps to offset their slow but eventual move from a free play by giving value add to their users).

Skype can also leverage the reach of both eBay (it's parent) and PayPal (a sibling in the corporate family) to both enhance its own offering but also provide a wider platform for the developers building on top of the ecosystem.

BitWineThere have been a number of simple add-ons and extras (akin to the desktop Gadgets for Vista and Messenger) but recently more significant products that couldn't cost effectively exist without the Skype infrastructure are starting to appear.

One of the more interesting of these is an on-line voice to voice (or face-to-face if both parties have video) ad hoc consulting system called BitWine.

BitWine allows anyone to register as an advisor - all you need is some free time, a Skype connection and (to be successful) some knowledge of your chosen subject. Once registered clients can visit the site, browse the catalogue and make an appointment for some help. The user pays for the time they've been helped at an agreed rate (If the service is great then you can leave a tip. If it was lousy you can dispute the charge) and then both the client and the advisor leave each other feedback just like on eBay to help maintain a reputation.

Over time as BitWine grows there will probably be some operational hiccups - time wasters and inept advisors but I think as they grow and the ratings start to kick in with some real depth of experience it will be a self policing model.

Sure, BitWine could have existed without Skype and PayPal but without the directory, without the escrow payment system, without the ratings and without the common communications platform it would have been much harder for people to find help.

Looking forward I can't see this solution being limited only to Skype. Windows Live Messenger (WLM) features a plug-in architecture, voice and video calling and a huge established user base (and Yahoo!, AOL and Google have similar propositions)... If they are smart BitWine will evolve their platform out to other transports before someone else takes the idea and opens it up.

Of course in an ideal world Skype, WLM and other IM/VoIP solutions will become interoperable and we could have one app that sits cross platform.... so for now the winners will be the providers who can deliver a thriving ecosystem around their core offerings