Skype is piloting a community conference call service, which can support as many as 100 callers. It's also offering a beta version of its internet calling software designed for easier use, the company said today.

The Skypecasts conference service allows online communities to schedule calls that anyone around the world can join. The service is currently being tested by select Skype partners but a beta version for the general public will be launched soon, Skype said.

The Skypecasts website,, lists scheduled and in-progress calls. Hosting and calling into a Skypecast is free for registered Skype users. The host can mute and enable participants to speak and eject callers, Skype said.

Six Apart, the developer of blogging software and a pilot user, is promoting Skypecasts as part of the offering, Skype said. The idea is for bloggers to schedule Skypecasts or promote other scheduled Skypecasts and invite visitors to their blogs to participate in the calls. Any blog or website that supports HTML (hypertext markup language) snippets will be able to include a link to a Skypecast, allowing visitors to join the call without leaving the blog site.

Bloggers may be particularly interested in using Skypecasts as a way to add a live audio conversation component to their blogs, according to Alistair Shrimpton, market development manager for the UK, Ireland and Holland for Skype. "Blogs are an online conversation. [Skypecasts] are real-time conversations," he said. People who run blogs will be able to control and manage Skypecasts in the same way that they control and manage their blogs, he added.

Skypecasts are expected to appeal more to social communities than to business groups because they're open to anyone, Shrimpton said. Skype already offers a conference call feature, which is more attractive to business users, he noted.

In addition, Skype released the latest version of its software, Skype 2.5, in beta form. Features include a drop-down menu that customers can use to choose the name of the country they want to dial so that they don't have to look up or insert the country code.

Customers can now add more money to their SkypeOut accounts from the software rather than from Skype's site. SkypeOut is the service that lets users place calls to landline phones for a per-minute fee.

Another new feature is the ability to send text messages to mobile phones from Skype, at a cost of €0.09 (about 6p) per message.

Skype 2.5 is integrated with Microsoft Outlook so that users can view Outlook contacts from the Skype software and place SkypeOut calls to those contacts. In addition, the conference calling feature in Skype 2.5 includes a feature that automatically flashes a participants picture when they begin to speak.