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“Why Skype has Conquered the World”

Posted by Brian Kelly on 13 August 2010

Yesterday the Guardian published an article entitled “Why Skype has Conquered the World“. This reminded of my “Skype, Two Years After Its Nightmare Weekend” post. Back in September 2009 I wrote:

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.

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4 Responses to ““Why Skype has Conquered the World””

  1. I’m not sure things have progressed that much further in two years really. On your previous blog post, I said:

    “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.”

    Isn’t this still true? VOIP is still a niche activity that only really done by people wanting to avoid call charges (ie those making long distance calls, and perhaps under-18s with less income). Phone calls via the traditional (landline or mobile) networks are still the default.

    One interesting thing is how tightly-coupled VOIP is with instant messaging (IM). And I don’t think Skype is the biggest IM network, by any means. The IM network is still highly fragmented, with low inter-operability. Microsoft’s network (commonly known as MSN Messenger) is still pretty popular. Google Talk probably used more by people at work (who increasingly use GMail). AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) may still have a dedicated userbase too. All of these services allow VOIP calls between their users, but not all of the are inter-operable.

    I still think it’s the inter-operability that users care about, and which has the biggest impact on scale and uptake. It doesn’t really matter whether that happens via open standards or not (though the former is preferable).

    My prediction is that VOIP will only really take off when it’s fully integrated into mobiles. The Skype app for the iPhone is actually a pretty good start at this. Google has their Google Voice service for Android, of course. And Apple has ‘FaceTime’ (only currently available on the iPhone 4). Will these ever all be compatible?

    • Thanks for the comment.

      But is Skype still a niche activity when you can buy a Skype Phone On Three Mobile from WH Smith’s? This is hardly a shop for those at the leading edge of technologies!

      I still think it’s the inter-operability that users care about, and which has the biggest impact on scale and uptake. It doesn’t really matter whether that happens via open standards or not (though the former is preferable).” Interoperability and ease of use. And, as you say, users don’t care whether such interoperability is provided by use of open standards.

  2. […] use of more structured content creation environments or, as I suggested in a recent post on “Why Skype has Conquered the World” and, some time ago, in a post on “Why Did SMIL and SVG Fail?“, the deployment […]

  3. […] automated updates) which has been fixed – and I have continued to be a happy Skype user and agree with last year’s Guardian article which described “Why Skype has conquered the world”. So yes there will be problems […]

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