Skype

About a year ago, my brother was extolling the virtues of Skype to me. This was strange: I had barely heard about the service myself, and am definitely more in the loop when it comes to geek toys than my brother.

Then a friend started telling me how she uses Skype to talk to all her clients. (Well, perhaps not “all” clients, but in business “some” is always better than “none”.)

In other words, for once I was getting tech buzz instead of spreading it. A curious sensation indeed.

So I decided to look into Skype, and what I saw looked good.

Here’s how it works: the Skype client translates sound into bits, which it sends realtime to one or more registered users, where other Skype clients translate the bits back into sound. This is called internet telephony, or, to use the buzzword, Voice over IP (VoIP).

Interestingly, VoIP has been a buzzword for quite some time, but it never really got off the ground. The reason for that was the same as the reason why so many proprietary technologies die: nobody is willing to pay the toll. Skype shows why; the actual price of making a connection is low. Skype offers most of its services for free, and the few for-pay ones are cheap. There is a Skype server that helps to connect clients, but the clients do most of the work themselves, peer-to-peer. Skype (the company) does extract a small price: you agree to let them siphon off bandwidth for your own use.

The success of Skype may also be its undoing. The reason VoIP works, is because it uses the bandwidth you already paid for. Telecom companies are not too happy with this phenomenon; they would prefer to sell your bandwidth to you twice, the second time as part of a proprietary, unusable VoIP “solution”. This is why some telecom giants have started filtering out Skype traffic, quoting “safety concerns” and other such malarky.

So, Skype gets it right, and it gets it right bigtime, but it also gets it wrong some times:

1) Skype requires always-on. Not in the sense that you have always got a connection to your provider, but in the sense that your computer doubles as your phone, so your computer should be always on.

This is not necessarily Skype’s (the service’s) problem, and there are work-arounds. Anyway, the people I cited earlier always do have their computers and speakers on, so for them it is not a problem.

2) Pop-ups, pop-ups, pop-ups. I did not notice at first, but Skype’s developers are addicted to nag-screens. Of the sort you cannot close. Of the sort you cannot preference-out. Of the sort that is wholly unnecessary, but gets shown nevertheless. Have I ever told you how much I hate pop-ups? As an interface element? A pop-up is a programmer’s admission that he did not think through the user’s workflow thoroughly enough. Pop-ups are only ever useful when they need to assist the user with a task, and only when they are completely non-modal (i.e. do not interfere with the task itself).

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