Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Microsoft devours Skype

Skype has been purchased by Microsoft, for $8.5 Billion.

I have used Skype for years on Linux, even though Skype treated their Linux client as something like a red-headed step-child. Features like video chat were always included in the Linux client long after they were in the Windows version, bug fixes were slow, stuff like that.

But, and here's the biggest thing: It worked.

Voice over Internet Protocol, VoIP, has been around for quite a while. Before wide spread NAT created firewalls between people, direct PC to PC voice applications such as PGPfone were providing secure voice services. Server based community applications like ICQ (which to this day has no Linux client) foreshadowed methods of meeting people's needs of searching for other ICQ users by location, language, whether or not someone wanted to be contacted, and the like, that Skype also utilized.

It make perfect sense, of course. What is the one and only reason to use a VoIP product in the first place? Other Users!

But as Saint IGNUcious has warned us all for decades, Skype is proprietary. Richard Stallman and Eric S. Raymond have been pointing the fingers of doom at the failings of proprietary software for their entire careers, warning anyone who would listen that relying upon proprietary software means depending upon others to do, reliably, what you would do for yourself.

And one of their primary warnings? That the code you rely on could get bought out from under you at any time leaving you high and dry. Prophecy? No, history.

This incident is not new. Microsoft has a long history of what is called "Embrace, Extend, Extinguish", where Microsoft will insinuate themselves into a market niche, then by altering the standards which people had already been using, effectively make everyone else in that niche obsolete.

Microsoft tried to do that HTML, as did Netscape, causing years of chaos and man-centuries of work creating two different versions of web pages, one for Internet Explorer, and one for Netscape. Netscape lost that battle and coding for IE extensions of HTML became the rule. But the Internet Explorer share of web traffic continues to decline due in no small part to Microsoft's attitude that Microsoft software shall not run on anything but Microsoft Windows, and so in the long run Microsoft and IE have had to adapt to a world where IE is nothing but a minority player which has to support published standards.

And supporting open, published standards is what F/OSS does best.

There are open standards for VoIP, such as SIP, which are used by F/OSS VoIP applications like Ekiga, Asterisk, and other players in both non-proprietary and proprietary software. What they all lack, sadly, is the simple pervasiveness that Skype enjoyed. The last time I enabled Skype, it politely reported that 23 million other people were logged in at that same time.

Numbers like that are hard to beat, thus Microsoft's decision to simply buy the competition.

But there is another competitor in this field, Google Voice. Here's the Wikipedia entry for Google Voice.

The problem with Google Voice is that it has all the same failings that Skype had. Oh, sure, Google isn't about to be bought by Microsoft, but Google has a long history of doing things that people in general consider invasions of privacy. And what could be more private than your personal phone calls?

Microsoft spending $8.5Billion for a business that doesn't even make money is insane, unless money is not what motivated Microsoft to make the deal.

I speculate that Microsoft did this for three reasons:

  • Google Voice. After all, if Google does something, Microsoft has to do it to. Bing!
  • Microsoft's existing voice offerings were not being adopted quickly enough, so they simply purchased what they think is going to be 23 million new Microsoft customers.
  • Skype broke the cardinal rule, it ran just fine on Linux. That rule being: If it doesn't run on Microsoft Windows, it must DIE!
But this also opens a window of opportunity:

  • There is a large community of very technically savvy people who despise Microsoft.
  • I believe Skype will lose lots of customers, like me as soon as I use up the money left in my Skype-Out account unless I can find out how to get a refund.
  • Standard SIP software phone use will increase as the combined pressures of Google's and Microsoft's reputations drive people to non-proprietary, or at least open standards, solutions.
  • With security concerns growing as well I hope to see resurgent interest in end-to-end verifiable encryption even before wide-spread deployment of IPv6.

All in all, I think Microsoft just blew $8.5Billion on another Zune.


  1. I was going to do a write up about this myself, but you beat me to the punch! Very through with lots of good tidbits.

  2. You are too kind, good sir. Feel free to refer your friends and relations!

  3. quote:: Skype is proprietary... ::quote

    That it may be but proprietary is all we have for decent cross platform communications of this sort until the FOSS developers actually develop something that does actually work, and is at least as easy to set up on all platforms. I also have ekiga, and most of the time I can't use it because it won't register my ekiga account, and the rest of the time it won't register my diamond card voip to telephone account.

    Skype works.

    There are however other, albeit proprietary, replacements for skype, brosix is one, and they are very interested in having thier client application included in the Linux distributions' repositories. And... drumrole... their client works exectly the same on Linux (Linux Mint anyway) as it does on Windows and Mac. They seem to care.

  4. Indeed, Tracyanne, that's why I used it, along with other F/OSS advocates.

    Skype works.

    I admit that I have a knee-jerk reaction to drop it just because it's now a Microsoft product. So far, that particular knee-jerk has served me well over the years.

  5. Tracyanne, thanks for the Brosix info - I'm going to try it.

  6. Anonymous11/5/11 22:33

    Great article (thank you Jeff for refereeing it). I don't care if Microsoft bought skype, I'll just keep using ekiga for my calls (anyhow, I only call on a computer to my geek friends lol)

  7. Anonymous12/5/11 04:37

    I was checking out Brosix, Terms of Service. It states:

    » It is a Brosix’s policy to respect the privacy of its users, but USER agrees that this Agreement does not create a reasonable expectation of privacy in the context of user’s communications.

    Anyone know what this means?

  8. I'm not a lawyer. What that means to me is that if someone taps the call, Brosix does not want to be held responsible.

    And I understand their motivation in saying so.

    It's exactly like Debian's (and every other distribution) disclaimer that their distribution may not be suitable for every purpose.

  9. As a Skype linux user I predict Microsoft will not do the honorable thing and continue to support Skype for linux. I also predict that thousands of Skype users will move somewhere else as Microsoft screws up what is already working fine.

  10. Curt we have seen this before where the M$ squash competition. You are dead on with this one. Great post I had to share this one since I know many Skype fans.

  11. Anonymous11/7/11 06:54

    Welcome to capitalism where companies buy each other up and proceed to ruin each other.

  12. Anon,

    Better that than the French Govt Mintel system, obsolete before it was finished and a fortune in tax money wasted.