'Skype Me Sometime!'
The Swedish-Estonian crew that brought you the Kazaa, now brings you the Skype Internet phone.
By Michael Tarm
They’re at it again.
The Swedish- and Estonian-based programmers who wrote the legendary Kazaa have now launched a new Internet phone software that could, in the not too distant future, make traditional telephone companies obsolete.
Three thirty-something Estonians who took the lead in crafting Kazaa, which became the bane of the entertainment industry by enabling users to download copyrighted music from the Net, also did the bulk of the work writing Skype—which offers free, unlimited voice communication between users anywhere in the world.
Skype further enhances the status of the three Estonian programmers—Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu and Jaan Tallinn—who were already heralded as folk heroes for helping to provoke such a monumental, worldwide fuss with the file-sharing Kazaa software.
While Skype shouldn’t stir the same legal hornet’s nest as Kazaa, that isn’t to say its creators aren’t out to shake more corporations to their core.
In their sights this time are no less than AT&T, Sprint and others who represent what Skype promotional materials derisively call POTS—Plain Old Telephone Systems.
“The goal here is that we want Skype to be the telephone company of the future,” said Skype CEO, Niklas Zennström, a Swede who has offices in both Tallinn and Stockholm. “Traditional network technologies date back to the 1870s or something. They’re inflexible and costly to maintain.”
Zennström’s business partner, Janus Friis, sounded equally ambitious notes.
“We hope people will start saying, ‘I’ll Skype you’ instead of ‘I’ll call you’—which means, ‘I’ll call you without paying any rip-off, per-minute charges and with superior, better-than-phone quality sound,’” he told CNET News.
Skype, because of its link to Kazaa, has attracted enormous media
attention since its release in August (2003), even prompting articles in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
The enviable publicity contributed to Skype’s early success.
Within two months, a whopping 1 million people had downloaded it from Skype.com; half a year later, over 6 million had. At that pace, Skype could break into the same league as Kazaa, which is the most downloaded software on the Net with over 300 million users.
Most reviews of Skype have been favorable.
“The quality of voice transmission is superb,” wrote online magazine Instant Messaging Planet, in a review titled The Skype’s the Limit. “It rivals—if not surpasses—standard telephone connections.”
Estonia’s KUKU radio said Skype’s sound quality is so good that it occasionally uses it to conduct on-air interviews.
Some accounts of Skype have verged on, well, hype.
Internet Phone Poses Threat To Existing Companies, a headline on NBC’s web site read.
For now, telephone execs probably aren’t losing that much sleep over Skype, which requires Windows 2000 or XP, a microphone and speakers.
Slow Internet lines or ones that keep slipping off line causes Skype’s sound quality to deteriorate or conk out completely. An inferior link can also produce voice delays of several seconds—giving users the sense they’re speaking with someone on the moon.
And since you can only call people who have also installed Skype, there aren’t many everyday opportunities to use it. Anyone determined to use Skype to call a local pizza delivery service, for instance, is almost certain to go hungry.
“I don’t think this could replace regular phones, not now,” said Linnar Viik, a leading Estonian Internet consultant. “But it could find a niche, say, in branch offices of the same company communicating throughout the day (with branches in other cities or countries).”
Skype’s authors acknowledge its current limitations.
But Skype will be upgraded over time, including to allow calls to regular land-line and cell phones, Zennström explained.
While the basic software will always be free, there will be a charge for more advanced versions, he said.
Skype, by most accounts, is the current leader in the field.
While other software, like Microsoft’s Messenger, allows users to speak to each other, Skype is the first to rely on peer-to-peer technology, meaning computers communicate directly with each other and not via a central server.
It is also set apart, insists Zennström, by its simplicity, by its ability to penetrate firewalls and by requiring no reconfiguration.
While Kazaa and Skype are both peer-to-peer programs, they otherwise differ. Skype doesn’t swap files, for starters. And it, unlike Kazaa, requires that users register on the Skype site and receive a password—though there is no charge for doing so.
Skype provides a vast index—a kind of online phone book—that enables users to find each other.
“So there is some element of centralization with Skype,” Zennström said. “But everything to do with the actual communication is completely decentralized.”
If Skype and other such technologies catch on to the degree Zennström hopes, those Plain Old Telephone companies could theoretically mount a counter offensive, including by trying to implement new, higher charges for landlines that still transmit Internet traffic.
And U.S. agencies are already talking about bringing such phone-like services under some semblance of regulatory control.
The European Union appears less inclined to interfere.
Skype’s developers, battle hardened by their experiences with Kazaa, seem unlikely to shirk any challenges awaiting them.
While they steadfastly denied accusations they had purposely facilitated the theft of copyrighted songs by creating Kazaa—they did eventually sell the software after facing the prospect of spending millions of dollars fending off a torrent of lawsuits from the music industry.
Far from distancing themselves from Kazaa, Skype’s creators are fond of reminding everyone, at every opportunity, that Skype and Kazaa were written by one and the same team.
That Kazaa-connection may have proved a PR boon, but, as Zennström readily admits, it also means Skype will be under all the more pressure to live up to the boasts of its owners.
“With us,” he said, “people have expectations.”