Skype: Doing It Right

A few days ago, I got a surprising call from a good friend in Japan, and we had a long talk, something we hadn’t done since he left.

As you can imagine, phone service from Japan to Indiana is a bit pricey under most circumstances. In searching for alternatives, my friend had discovered a distinctly different service: Skype. Among its benefits, I was told, was a very cheap service for calling into the traditional phone network, and he was taking advantage of his newfound freedom to call.

The more I looked at this new service, the better it looked. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had a Linux Skype client, and while the implementation isn’t perfect, it’s easily one of the best commercial Linux programs I’ve ever used. This is especially noteworthy given the state of Linux sound support today; nearly all the problems I’ve had have been related to sound, which isn’t surprising given the driver rearchitecturing that’s been going on and the circumstances surrounding multiplexing sound on the open source desktops.

The general interface model is based off instant messenging, instead of trying to pretend to be a phone. A real (proprietary, alas) instant messenger is built into the service. The program keeps a buddy list, with status, and one can search for new buddies and add them to the list in the usual manner.

Their revenue model is particularly smart. The client (for MacOS X, Windows, and Windows CE, as well as Linux) is free, as is the Skype-to-Skype voice service. People wanting to talk to real phones can pay into an account, from which money is deducted when calling. The rates are compelling: 2 cents per minute within the continental USA, Western Europe, Scandinavia, Chile, and Australia, with slightly higher rates for other regions. For reference, Japan is 2.57 cents per minute. Thus, the service is a good draw without paying a dime, and the money-makers fit well within that context. It will be interesting to see if they can make this work; certainly they seem to be doing well for now.

When I talked to my friend on the phone, I could not tell that he was using an Internet voice service. The lag was actually less than I was accustomed to with international calls, and the voice quality was every bit as good as any call I’ve made. Using the computer has not been quite as good; his voice sounds choppy to me, though he says I come through loud and clear. This could be an issue with the client; I haven’t tried it on Windows to see if performance is better. What’s more, choppiness seemed to increase with system load on my box.

Overall, I give Skype a big thumbs-up. It certainly won’t replace your cell phone or traditional home phone (for one, that 2 cents per minute is charged whether you’re calling Sweden or your next-door neighbor), but it beats all the intra-American long distance plans I know about, and if you can convince your friends to use Skype as well, then the price becomes unbeatable. I’ll grant that I don’t make many international calls, but I don’t see the downside there apart from service availability.

UPDATE (2005-01-20): Slashdot has linked to this analysis of the Skype protocol by researchers at Columbia. Interestingly, Skype appears to be entirely peer-to-peer, and is being developed by the same people who wrote KaZaA, the peer-to-peer file sharing system.

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