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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Brough Turner: What Skype means to me

On the occasion of Skype's fifth birthday, Skype Journal will publish a series on "What Skype Means To Me." You are invited to email your essay or short thoughts to

Brough Turner is CTO of NMS Communications. In the 1990s, Brough was a leader in PC-based telephony and contributed to the emergence of VoIP technologies, products, and standards.

Skype was a revelation – now love and disappointment.

When I first tried Skype in early September 2003, it was a revelation. First it just worked! I don’t mean it installed and executed properly – many software packages do that. With Skype, I could make voice connections through our corporate firewall, despite our IT department blocking all UDP traffic. Now that was a breakthrough.

Next it combined IM and voice in a useful fashion, something no one else had done at that time.

Finally, it used wideband audio! Skype connections were better than “toll quality.” Assuming adequate broadband, Skype audio beat anything else. I recall an early conversation with a friend in Tokyo. There was music playing in their apartment and it felt like I was in the room with them.

Today I use Skype on a daily basis for business and with friends, but almost always with people in Europe or Asia. It seems Skype’s adoption rate in the US is much lower. Also, mobility trumps presence. For US associates, I can use whatever IM reaches the desired party and then call them on my mobile. There’s no per minute charge for mobile calls (within the US), so all that matters is what IM the other party is using.

I continue to love Skype’s voice quality, especially given the diverse accents of some of my friends and associates. J and I routinely use SkypeOut and Skype voice mail.

The disappointment? They stumbled. The eBay acquisition meant a nice chunk of cash for the founders and early staffers, but no synergies, and in due course the founders were gone.

Communications services need critical mass. But other instant messengers have grown their user bases more rapidly – certainly QQ and likely Windows Live Messenger. This afternoon, there were 11-12 million Skype users on-line (10.5 million right now) while QQ had 37-40M (admittedly mostly Chinese) users simultaneously on-line. Skype is not enough for my IM needs. To see status for the people I communicate with, I have to run four IM clients at once.

Looking back, initiatives to increase their user base or wrap other instant messengers might have been better than the focus on video (which I seldom use). Looking forward, I dream of the day I get integrated mobile IM and voice that just works, everywhere.

For now, I’m encouraged that current Skype management seems to have their eye back on the ball. And I still love and use Skype with those friends (disproportionately European and Asian) who are routinely available on-line.

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