Skype: Sliced Bread or Snake Oil?


Have you been Skyped yet? If you already have an Internet connection, there's probably only one thing keeping you from free, worldwide, computer 'phone' calls'a microphone to plug into your sound card. No worries, if you have a newer computer you may already have one without knowing it. Check inside your computer box; your mic may be just waiting for you to plug it in and start calling for free. Imagine no monthly long distance bills, no bogus 'fees,' no FCC surcharges, and no federal taxes left over from the Spanish-American war. Skype isn't quite there yet, but it has the potential to become the killer application of the year, and it's free.

Skype is the latest in P2P (peer-to-peer) VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) client from the same people who brought you KaZaA. As Nicholas Thompson writes in The New York Times, 'Mr. Zennstrom and Mr. Friis have reunited with the same team of Estonian programmers who wrote the code for Kazaa and have created a way to allow people to make high-quality phone calls over the Internet without having to pay a penny.' Sound good to you? Think nuking AT&T, MCI, and Sprint.

Fed up with switching long distance carriers? Still can't figure out your calling plan? Tired of writing big monthly checks for long distance for no apparent reason? Good, then download Skype and test it. It's still in beta, but it downloads quickly and it installed easily for me. My first incoming call was from Erica in Perth , Australia , who called me back after I had called her earlier. How did she know that I had called her while her computer was turned off, you ask? Skype keeps track of all of your missed calls, giving you the option of returning them (or not) at your leisure. How cool is that?

She was having problems with her mic, so we exchanged text messages instead. I know, I know, all of you chat freaks are saying, 'So, what's the big deal?' Many of you have been chatting for years and some of you are doing it via voice. The big difference is that Skype was designed for P2P telephony'unlike chat programs like ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger'giving it capabilities that they can never achieve.

After we both turned off the mute function on our respective mics, we were able to talk to each other. I could hear her very clearly and there was no mistaking that Aussie accent. She could hear me, but not very well. We sent some more text messages back and forth while I played with my mic. After recording several test messages on my computer I determined that I had mounted my mic too far away from my mouth. It worked fine 6' away from my mouth. I used my normal speakers with an external mic, but for best results the Skype website recommends using a headset with integrated mic.

Skype offers at least two major advantages over other standard VoIP clients; it works with any firewall/NAT (Network Address Translation) setup, and it provides secure, encrypted communication using AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), also known as Rijndael. AES is strong, 256-bit, end-to-end, world-class encryption, making all of your voice and text messages totally secure. Although it is legal and brand new, the FBI is already concerned that Skype will soon limit its ability to conduct wiretaps. Doesn't that just break your little heart?

I have been testing and using various encryption programs for several years, but my efforts to convince my friends and relatives to also use strong encryption have failed miserably. Most people don't want to be bothered with passwords, configuring new software, and then learning how to use it. That's where Skype will make its mark. It doesn't require using passwords, there is no software configuration involved, and learning how to use it is a snap. If you can chat, you already know how to Skype. The interface is very compact and intuitive, right from the start. If Skype doesn't get people to start using strong encryption to communicate, nothing ever will.

Pros: Free, small download, installs easily, intuitive interface, works with any firewall/NAT setup, AES security, offers phone quality (or better) voice, with much better connectivity than previous P2P VoIP clients.

Cons: Currently only allows computer-to-computer calling (computer-to-phone is in the works), only 1.3+ million potential users worldwide (as this was being written, based on the current number of downloads from the website), still in beta, only currently available for Windows 2000/XP, and it requires a broadband connection for best results.

If you research the web, you will find that the major long distance carriers are publicly skeptical of Skype, but they are also actively attempting to catch up to it. Several geek pundits are already forecasting their demise. The race is on and the consumer will be the winner, no matter what happens.

Impression: At the rate that this VoIP client is being downloaded (without any paid advertising) it is a sure bet that Skype is headed for greatness, maybe not yet this year, but look out next year. Skype sure smells like sliced bread to me. [this is the home page] [this is the info page] [this is the FAQ page] [this is the geek page]

For more information, check out the Skype home page, info page, FAQ page, or geek page. After you install it, feel free to Skype me. My current username is joeblow073. Part II to follow after I have more experience using Skype. Stay tuned and happy downloading.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Skype or Skyper, Ltd. in any way.

Your rating: None
Joe Blow's picture
Columns on STR: 58

Joe Blow is a privacy advocate with proven subspecialties in strategic planning.  Note: Pirate Poop is now a free newsletter, available by email only. Send all subscription requests to