UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Skype, Two Years After Its Nightmare Weekend

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 1 September 2009

The headline in the Technology Guardian supplement read “Skype’s nightmare weekend highlights peer-to-peer fears” two year’s ago back on 23 August 2007. The article described how “Skype’s popular internet telephone service went down on August 16 and was unavailable for between two and three days“.

I remember this incident as, with people’s attention focussed on the loss of this service (fortunately at a non-critical time in the academic year) our University IT Service department took the opportunity to remind the Skype users on campus (which included me) that Skype was a proprietary application. The recommended VoIP application, which was about to be deployed for the start of the academic year, was the FreeWire phone service. This, I was told, was recommended as it was based on open standards. This sounded interesting, especially if it provided the application independence which Skype lacks. So I looked at the FreeWire Web site and found that “It’s only when you call non-Freewire phones that you have to pay“. So it’s based on open standards, but you have to pay if you try to call a user who isn’t running the same software as you. It’s no different from Skype, it would seem – except, perhaps, that as I speak there are almost 17 million Skype users online. In comparison the standards-based FreeWire service services a niche market (and perhaps a satisfied niche market as, here at Bath University several student residences now have Voice-over-IP telephones in the bedrooms).

But the promise of VoIP telephony services seems further away than it did two years ago (and the access problems Skype suffered from were due to a bug triggered by large numbers of automated Microsoft Windows updates – a bug now fixed). I now have Skype clients on my office PC and my laptop (both running MS Windows), my Asus EEE netbook PC (running Linux), my iPod Touch and my HTC Magic Android. A proprietary application running on four different platforms seems pretty good!

So what’s the future for VoIP telephony services? Yesterday the BBC News announced “eBay reaches deal to sell Skype“. The article states that “Online auction site eBay has agreed to sell the majority of internet phone company Skype for about $2bn (£1.2bn)” and goes on to explain that the deal values Skype at $2.75bn, a slight increase on the $2.6bn it paid for the company in 2005.

Attempts by JANET to deploy a standards-based VoIP service (called JANET Talk) for the UK’s higher/further education community were abandoned a few months ago because, as described in JANET News (PDF format): “The results from both trial feedback and market research showed that the appetite for a service like JANET Talk had diminished. The reasons cited include a preference for alternative solutions that are now available from the commercial sector. These solutions were deemed easier to use, reliable and free.

Sometimes standards-based solutions don’t take off, it would seem, even when there are JISC-funded initiatives encouraging the take-up of such solutions. And as Nick Skelton suggested in a post entitled “Why did JANET Talk fail?” perhaps this is due to a failure to appreciate the importance of the network effect. Nick concluded:

When planning a new service, see if it has built-in positive network effects. It is doesn’t have these naturally, find a way to connect it to larger networks so it can benefit from theirs. If you can’t find a way to do this then you are dooming your project from the start. You’re better off doing nothing, unless you want to see your service become irrelevant, pushed to one side by a larger, more popular one.

I agree.

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10 Responses to “Skype, Two Years After Its Nightmare Weekend”

  1. I also agree.

    This is something I’ve also been arguing in the context of the ‘institutional’ approach to repositories where I think the “built-in positive network effects” are small in comparison to, say, the network effects of using Slideshare to host presentations.

    Offers like Mendelay may well improve those network effects but it’s certainly something we need to keep on our collective radars.

  2. As an aside… I do surprisingly little ‘business’ by voice and therefore never really got Skype until my daughter travelled to Australia on her own, where a combination of Skype on my iPhone and a local (Australian) SIM card at her end made keeping in touch very cheap and easy.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I’m giving a talk on Standards at the ILI 2009 conference and I’m currently thinking about approach I should take. The importance of the network effect wasn’t appreciated when I first became involved in standards work, over 10 years ago, but, as we both agree, needs to be aprpeciated in today’s environment.

  4. I think this is missing the point a little. Big institutional roll-outs of VOIP, like the one you’ve got at Bath, have a captive, semi-closed network of people making a lot of calls to each other. So in many ways, it doesn’t matter which technology or provider you choose, as you can impose whatever you choose, and then make the savings from all the internal calls, with external calls mostly going back intro the traditional phone network.

    More widely, VOIP hasn’t really taken off in a big way yet. Skype may have millions of users, but I bet that a vast majority of those have a very small network of one or two people who are abroad, and are simply using the service to make cheap calls to those specific people. So the network effects aren’t that large.

    As with Instant Messaging, the providers will soon find that in order to truly get ‘network effects’ they have to make their systems open enough to be able to inter-operate with other providers. It doesn’t matter too much whether this is via open standards, or closed connections (although the former has some advantages when the number of providers is high).

    With Instant Messaging, this is already happening, with Google Talk, iChat, MSN and ICQ users all being able to chat with each other (to varying degrees). The same is slowly happening with VOIP (and video) – Google Talk uses XMPP/Jingle, which is an open standard implemented by some other clients too.

    So ultimately, standards ARE important in the long-term, it’s just that it’s not always clear which standard will come to dominate, and whether that standard will arise within the standards community, or from a vendor such as Google donating it to the public domain…

    • Frankie,

      I agree with the specific points you make about Skype, but disagree with your general point. I reckon it is a mistake to think about a captive, semi-closed network of users on whom solutions can be imposed. It is now easier than ever for users to bypass their IT department. Consumer technologies and free web services make it trivial – there is no cost to switching and no way to prevent it.

      Bristol has an institutional calendar service, as do many universities. This makes it easier to arrange meetings with other people on the same calendar system. However this is no help when collaborating with people outside the University. Instead some adopt Meetup.com, which can schedule meetings with anyone who has an email address. People who have more external meetings than internal ignore the institutional service completely – it doesn’t solve their problem.

      Meetup.com is hooking into the positive network effects of a larger network – the network of email users. Most VOIP systems do the same – they can call anyone on the public telephone network.

      Imagine however an institutional instant messaging service. What standard should it use? How would it interoperate with IM services at other organisations? There are standards in IM, but they are maturing slowly. Jabber/XMPP offers a federated model similar to SMTP, but the largest network (MSN/Windows Live) doesn’t do Jabber. So don’t put much effort into an institutional IM service yet. Unless it can interoperate with the major networks it won’t attract significant numbers of users.

      • riffic said

        which standard to use? I’ll tell you which standard you should use, follow the IETF, read some RFC’s (you can start with 3920 if you see where this is going)

  5. cshankman said

    I’ve been using ooVoo off and on for a while. Primarily for video, but only person needs to have the software to connect, and then the other person can just use a URL to connect. I have also been playing around with it for recreating the Bloggingheads style video.

  6. Frankie,
    I took the ‘network effects’ comment to refer spcifically to the (lack of) uptake of JANET Talk, rather than to the ‘on campus’ use of Freewire. That said, I think that ‘network effects’ also apply to on campus decisions… though with a slightly different meaning than the size of any individual’s network. If a technology becomes the generally accepted way of doing something (I think Skype falls into this class currently though you may disagree), particularly in the sense that it is available on lots of platforms, then any decision not to use it has to be taken in light of user-expectations, support costs, ease of use, availability on student’s own technology, and so on. Network effects apply between the suppliers of the ‘technology’ as well as between the users of it I think? One might hope that such network effects happen better around truly open standards-based approaches but I don’t think that is always the case.

    In a separate discussion I’ve been arguing (lightly) against the wholesale rush by universities to use iTunes U to host podcasts – but I concede that one of the major arguments in favour of such a move is that it is simply what students expect/want to see happen.

  7. [...] communications services previously. In September 2009  I wrote a post entitled “Skype, Two Years After Its Nightmare Weekend” which described how “Skype’s popular internet telephone service went down on August 16 [...]

  8. […] with technologies such as Skype. As discussed in a post published in 2009 which reflected on Skype, Two Years After Its Nightmare Weekend, at one stage institutions, and indeed, JANET, where looking to provide standards-based VOIP […]

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