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).
How how things developed in the VoIP world since then? Yesterday’s Guardian article tells us that:
Skype is one of the great unheralded success stories of the internet: where Facebook and Twitter are busy shortening attention spans and relieving us of our sense of private space, Skype has quietly changed the way we talk. That Facebook has 500 million users is well known but there are 560 million registered Skype users who have made a total of 250bn minutes of calls since it was founded, seven years ago this month.
The article went on to suggest that Skype’s success was due to its ease-of-use and low cost:
Using it is easy: all you need is an internet connection and a laptop that has a microphone and, ideally, a webcam. When I first visited the US, 20 years ago, I would ring home by shovelling sackloads of quarters into payphones; these days, thanks to Skype, I can talk daily to friends from anywhere in the world. Calls are free to other Skype users and cheap to everyone else.
It’s not without its flaws, though:
As a habitual Skype user I have become accustomed to its failings – the frozen webcam image, the metallic sound of the human voice when transported through the air, and the timelag that afflicts some long-distance conversations.
But the author is clearly a fan:
And yet it is still one of the few things online that has indisputably improved our lives and made the world that much smaller and chattier.
and several of the comments to the article support this (“Skype is one of those few online services that are massive but have (as far as I see) zero negative opinion“) with criticisms focussing on Rupert Murdoch’s challenging the right of Skype to register its name as a trademark in Europe, claiming that it is too close to its own Sky brand.
So let’s be honest and admit that a closed proprietary VoIP service has, for the consumer market, triumphed over the open standards alternatives. We need to remember these stories when we make recommendations on use of open standards in development work. As I proposed in a position paper which I prepared for the CETIS Future of Interoperability Standards meeting early this year there is a need to make use of a risks assessment approach to the selection of open standards. And one of the risks which needs to be considered is the risk that end users might be happy with proprietary solutions.