Thursday, March 5, 2009

Stuck in Skype

I mostly write about Microsoft here, but Microsoft isn’t the only proprietary software vendor, and neither is it the only one that tries to lock you into their products. Today I would like to speak about another company – right here in Estonia.

Skype at Work

At work I use Skype for all my instant messaging needs. It’s a company policy – we all do. And I must say, that it does a pretty good job at it. I really like some of its features:

  • You never have to worry about closing the conversation window – when you open it again, your previous conversation will still be there and you can continue from where you left off.

  • When you log in from another computer, your settings will be there. For example when I change my display picture at home, then I don’t have to change it again when I log in at work.

  • And when you make a spelling error, you can just press up arrow and correct it.

These features aren’t nothing sort of astonishing, but you know, often it’s the small things that matter. And all together they make Skype a really nice piece of software.

But it’s not good enough...

The World of IM Protocols

If the web browsers were like instant messaging clients, then instead of all browsers being able to display HTML pages, each browser manufacturer would only support its own proprietary format. IE would only display Microsoft Word documents, Safary would only support Quicktime, Adobe would have it’s own Flash-browser, and only Firefox plus a few other niche browsers would support open HTML standard.

It looks crazy and stupid, but that’s totally how the world of instant messaging looks today.

MSN Messenger uses its own proprietary protocol, AOL Instant Messenger uses another and Skype uses yet another. There also exists a free protocol called Jabber, but it’s mostly used by free software apps – it’s not supported by MSN, AOL or Skype. And therefore the users of MSN can only chat with MSN users and AOL users with AOL users and Skype users with Skype users and so on...

Clearly, this kind of situation can’t last forever. One protocol must ultimately win the competition and the others shall die. So, lets see our main contestants (rough numbers based on Wikipedia):

Tencent QQ 320 mln active (in China)
MSN 300 mln active
Yahoo 250 mln active
Skype 300 mln total
AOL 100 mln total
Jabber 90 mln total
ICQ 15 mln active

Jabber looks like a total loser in this comparison, but that’s not the full picture because Jabber supports transporters. Transporters are the middlemen who allow Jabber users to communicate with the users of other protocol. For example when Jabber user wants to talk with MSN user, then all he needs is to register his MSN account with some available Jabber-to-MSN transporter and voilà – he appears at the buddy list of his friend just like any other MSN user.

This way a Jabber user can talk to MSN, AOL, ICQ, Yahoo and some more. So, when you use Jabber your network of friends is not limited to just a single protocol – the users of Jabber can talk to more people than the users of any proprietary protocol out there. Jabber is the clear winner and the only wise move any proprietary IM vendor can do is to jump on the Jabber bandwagon. AOL has already done that and Google did it with its Talk from the beginning. Others are destined to follow or die out.

What about Skype

When I spoke about Jabber transporters, I didn’t mention the one for Skype – that’s because there isn’t one. There have been some projects for making one, but so far these haven’t been successful.

This is because the developers of Skype have worked hard to make reverse engineering of Skype as hard as possible. In fact it is so hard, that there has been extensive scientific research on various aspects of Skype.

The makers of Skype would like you to believe that by using Skype you can communicate with the whole world, while in fact it’s quite the opposite – they want to lock you down to their small proprietary world, so that you can only talk to other Skype users and no-one else.

And I’m not the only one complaining here. The Free Software Foundation also dislikes Skype and finding a replacement for it is one of its top priorities.

Escaping Skype

So, how could I escape Skype? As I already said, it’s a company policy, but it might be even more than that, because the main investors of our little software-house are also the founders of Skype. I don’t think I’m able to convince other developers not to use Skype.

Another option would be to use free IM client that is able to speak with Skype, but as I said, currently there aren’t any. Not even a tiny little Jabber transporter.

The only remaining option is to develop a Jabber-Skype transporter by myself. But I really doubt I’m up for this task. Many have failed already.

So far Skype sucks even more than Windows, because I can easily escape Windows, but I still have to find a way to escape Skype.

1 comment:

  1. at least the name of Skype is cool: