A lot of geek types are going Ga-ga over Skype because of what a great desktop application it is. But these ordinarily-skeptical GNU-loving beatnicks (myself included) aren’t asking themselves the question that’s been on my mind lately–would I still love Skype so much if it was a Microsoft product?
Somehow, I don’t think Skype would have the same support from the free software community.
If you visit Microsoft’s ‘online museum‘, you’ll see that their webmaster has conveniently left out all of their early business deals in order to make us think that Microsoft’s product history starts and ends with Windows. As if Bill and Paul really made their first million selling Altair BASIC.
Before I get too far into a Microsoft rant, let me re-focus. After all, this article is also about Skype, not just Microsoft. Just stay with me, if you don’t mind.
In 1982, the Commodore 64 came with Microsoft BASIC. So did the TRS-80, the Commodore 128, and the Apple II. Even that decade-too-soon Amiga computer ran a Microsoft BASIC. In the years that followed, Microsoft bought CP/M, turned it into MS-DOS, and inked a deal with IBM to develop a next-generation operating that eventually, a lawsuit or two later, became Windows. In the early 1990s, Microsoft deftly overtook Apple as the desktop operating system vendor of choice, sealing a 2-decade legacy of arguably competition-free market dominance that not even Ralph Nader and Bill Clinton’s justice department could dampen.
Now, fast-forward to 2003. A small European software company called Skype has been optimizing their simple, peer-to-peer VoIP tool, an instant messaging application that looks and feels rather like Yahoo Messenger or AOL Instant Messenger. Offering better sound quality and bandwidth economy than competing VoIP products, Skype quickly becomes the instant messaging client of choice for folks who need to make voice calls on the cheap.
In 2004, Linux and Macintosh are added to the roster of Skype’s supported desktop operating systems, and the Skype network grows exponentially. Skype releases their API for Windows, and handy add-on applications begin showing up. Now, Skype can answer your calls while you’re away, and even be bridged with other sound-generating or sound-recording apps. Using Skype’s public telephone gateway service, called SkypeOUT, you can even call your mom on her landline phone. A few months later, SkypeIN is added, and people can call your Skype client using a regular phone number.
Some observers dismissed Skype as a software fad, overlooking the network that underlies the Skype system–a network which rides on the Internet and permits secure, encrypted, essentially free, voice calls and conference calls between users of all stripes. A network derived from the killer peer-to-peer topology employed by the uber-successful file-sharing program Kazaa. This network could conceivably replace the public telephone network in large part, just as Microsoft’s domination of desktop computing devastated an entire vibrantly-competing market of 8-bit and 16-bit also-rans in the 80s and early 90s. It seems odd to most people that a peer-to-peer freeware system could replace Ma Bell, but there it is. Most people couldn’t conceive of a Microsoft-dominated computer industry back in the days of Amstrad and Sinclair.
Consider the similiarities between Microsoft and Skype. Both had to create and license less-than-ambitious specialty products in order to finance their long-term goals. In the case of Microsoft, it was BASIC and the like. In Skype’s case, it was the Skype IM client. That’s just where the similarities begin.
Both Microsoft and Skype had (or have) a smart bunch of people looking for ground-floor entrances into a burgeoning new market that most people don’t yet realize is out there. In Microsoft’s case, it was desktop computing. In Skype’s case, it’s global packet telephony.
Both built proprietary technologies to solve problems that had already been dealt with by standards. In Microsoft’s case, they avoided Unix in favor of MS DOS. They avoided internetworking in favor of simpler (and more limited) NetBEUI broadcast networking. Skype on the other hand created a peer-to-peer VoIP call-routing and signaling system when other, arguably superior, methods exist: most notably Session Intiation Protocol and Real-time Protocol. But, like Billy Boy, Skype has found the standards less than acceptable for what they’re attempting to do. This, to me, is a clear indicator of what their long-term ambitions are. But the resemblance doesn’t end there.
Just as Microsoft started to build its own developer tools to allow creative thinkers to subscribe to the Windows platform vision (and buy in to a proprietary development style), Skype has released its Skype API to encourage developers to jump onto their platform. This means that VoIP-interested developers may be less likely to learn SIP and more likely to learn the Skype API. Echos of Borland C resound: Visual C programs only ran on Windows, just as Skype API programs only run on the Skype network. Standards be damned.
Like Microsoft, Skype is using partners’ devices to extend their distribution channels. So far these devices include the i-Mate and Motorola cell phones. Just as Microsoft fanned out its distribution base for Windows by inking “no-win” deals with PC makers, Skype has undoubtedly marked a bit of firmware memory on every cell phone in the first world as fair target territory. Instead of Bill Gates’ old addage “Microsoft software running on every computer”, Skype may be thinking, “Skype firmware running on every phone and broadband router”.
Right now, Skype’s technology appeals to cell-phone makers like Motorola because it has the potential to free them from the contractual bondage of Cingular and Nextel. Cell-phone makers want a value-added feature that lessens their dependence on proprietary, closed-access cell networks. The Internet–and Skype–enable that feature. But, as time goes own, the debt of servitude will shift to Skype instead, just as PC makers looking for a low-cost OS to help sell their iron eventually became shackled by Windows. This is the “devil in the details”.
With a high-layer Skype peer-to-peer mesh between 3G wireless networks, the Internet, WiFi and WiMax links, and home phones, a single, cohesive call-signaling technology will exist–and flourish–for the first time ever. But there’s one catch–and it’s a mighty big one: Skype will control the whole thing, from the signaling technology all the way up to the content.
To illustrate this idea, imagine Skype and Microsoft traded names:
Your cell-phone boots up and logs in to a Microsoft super node using the local WiFi connection. At this point Microsoft knows your IP address, your phone number, your user name, your password, and your rough geographic location. And that’s all without you even calling anybody on your cell-phone yet. Now, let’s say you call dear old Grandma. Using Microsoft’s 256-bit encryption, nobody can listen in on your call–which is great… except when you consider that Microsoft controls the network and the encryption algorithm. Once the FCC gets wind that the FBI can’t tape Skype calls, Microsoft will be legislated into permitting your calls to be monitored. Not feeling quite as secure now, are you? Let’s hope Grandma doesn’t tell you any trade secrets during that call. Oh, and by the way–you called Grandma using the MicrosoftOUT gateway–so that’ll cost you three bucks. Payable to, you guessed it, Microsoft.
Now, for the knock-out punch in this near-conspiracy theory. Bill Gates has often outlined a vision of Microsoft becoming an “information utility”, the nerve center of a Microsoftian infrastructure network where people subscribe to computing power (think “grid”) the way they subscriibe to electric power, cable television, or–you guessed it–telephone service. Skype’s startling vision of a future telephone-over-Internet network is probably closer to creating the infrastructure of utility computing than even Bill Gates himself is prepared to admit.
Remember the days when Bill Gates refused to acknowledge the importance of the Internet? And that was an uncoordinated, almost random sudden adoption of vendor-neutral networking technology. Skype is an orchestrated attempt to utterly replace a the global telephone network, driven by a small army of cash-armed tech warriors who are as success-driven and shrewd as Gates himself was as an ugly, gawky teenager in the 1970s. If I were Microsoft, or SBC, or Nextel, I’d be watching Skype very closely right now, as I’m sure they are.
Would you use Skype if Microsoft ran the Skype network?