BitDepth 509 - January 31

Skype software makes Voice over IP more like free phone calls on your computer...
Skyping away at long distance charges

You may hear a voice but Skype and other IP voice software are transmitting data.
Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Sometimes software can change the way we live. Napster changed the way record companies regarded the Internet and Skpye looks set to do the same thing for phone companies.
Skype comes from the same programming team that produced Kazaa, notorious not only for taking up where Napster left off but also for extending piracy to television shows and movies.

That expertise is stamped all over Skype's simple interface and in the surprising quality of the results you can get from it.
Skype is a Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) client, which uses proprietary protocols to package conversation as if it were data over the Internet.
I've messed around with VOIP before for this column and wasn't terribly impressed. Older communications packages were less like a telephone and more like a lousy walkie-talkie, offering tinny, echo-ridden representations of speech that was more frustrating than enabling.

After sampling the current version of Skype, I have to admit that if I ran a large telephone company that depended on long distance charges for profits, I would be treating Skype like the unholy spawn of Satan.
The software is scary in its simplicity. It will take you less time to get Skype up and running than it does to make a good cup of coffee.

Skype's download is a single application that connects with the company's networks and invites you create a username and password. There are millions of Skype users so newbies who want popular names will have to get creative, adding numbers or other identifiers to get one that isn't already taken.
A successful sign-up should only take a few minutes and after that, all you need is someone else's Skype username to make a connection. No nagging, no "passports", no additional signups.

You may be dealing with a panel and buttons on a computer screen; the software goes out of its way to behave like a real phone. You "dial" the user you want to connect to and the "phone" rings while it tries to connect.
If someone tries to connect to you, your computer's speaker will jangle like an old school dial-type telephone.
Up to here, Skype is both cute and somewhat entertaining, the big surprise is the quality of the call. On a broadband to broadband connection with no dial-up slow downs on either end, a Skype call is almost identical to using a telephone.

Add a headset microphone or one of the new receivers designed to hook up to a computer, and you can have lengthy long-distance calls essentially for free.
Now Skype won't make much money facilitating free phone calls, so this service is just the baseline.
For users who want to call people on their telephone there's SkypeOut, a paid for add-on to Skype for which you buy minutes of call time for 20 popular call destinations for roughly US$.02 per minute.

You can also buy SkypeIn, which gives callers from regular phones a number to call which for them is a local call but can reach you in several major cities in the world. Port of Spain, alas, is not one of them.
Like most cutting edge Internet software, Skype works best with a recent computer with at least a 500-900mhz processor, 256MB of RAM and the best Internet connection you can manage.

Now all this comes with a caveat. Internet Service Providers, particularly those who also provide traditional telephone services, don't like Skype and its ilk. In testing this product, I have knowingly run afoul of TSTT's terms of service, item 4.1.7, which threatens to disconnect or suspend service "if used for voice communication or so as to avoid, evade or reduce payment of the standard changes (sic) applicable from time to time for any telecommunications services provided by the Lessor".

Legal minds will argue that I'm not trying to avoid payment of any standard "changes," but Skype (and other VOIP product) users should know that TSTT frowns rather deeply on this use of its bandwidth and has flexed its muscle on previous infractions that sought to reduce the change coming into its purse.
There are other service providers, however, who don't have conflicting interests in this matter and may not give a damn.

Quick facts about Skype.
Introduced to the market in 2003 by Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, the creators of peer to peer filesharing software Kazaa.
Sold for US$2.6 billion to eBay in September 2005.
Skype boasts of more than 240 million downloads of the software.
The new version 2 introduces videotelephony between Windows installations of the software.
Current versions of Skype work on Windows 2000/XP, MacOS X, Linux (six different binaries provided) and Pocket PC (Windows Mobile v5).
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