Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Abandon Skype all ye who enter here

With the purchase of Skype by Microsoft, there's a question that has been bugging me for quite a while.

Why Skype?

What properties made Skype the 800lbs gorilla of software phones?

I think I have a few ideas.

1) Video. Even though it took a while to get video working on Linux, it does work and works pretty well.

2) Cross Platform. A Skype account established on Windows, used on Linux, talking to someone on a Mac, they work and knowing one makes sense of the others.

3) Distributed architecture. Although I've read rants against the usurpation of bandwidth by people who unknowingly become Skype super-nodes, the distributed nature of Skype has allowed for world-wide use without having to worry about being able to connect to a single, central server.

Last, and very much not least,

4) The Index. Searching by ICQ-like attributes like name, language, gender, location, etc., from within the application is Skype's great killer attribute. If I cannot find you and your SIP phone, I cannot call your SIP phone.

Seriously, I don't even have a phone book at home any more. I asked around, and several people around me also don't have phone books, and one of them hadn't even noticed until I mentioned it.

Ekiga and other individual SIP and VoIP providers have such search functions to find individuals amongst their subscribers, but this is where the "network effect" takes its toll. Skype, being the 800lbs gorilla, simply has a bigger index than anyone else.

But this obvious need, to find people, is being met by scores of different efforts in scores of different ways. People Finders are popping up like crazy. Put a proper name in a Google search and see for yourself. At this point many are paid services, if the individual has not put themselves online deliberately, but one's SIP address is just as easy to list as any other address or phone number.

I started putting a "sip:" line on my business card,, and since the Ekiga server is vanilla SIP, any SIP soft phone can contact me through that mechanism. Which is fine, since there are many SIP phones out there, but that doesn't solve the problem of searching.

It used to be that or would be pretty sure to get email to a real person. Now people know well enough to put forth a little effort searching before a real email address is found. The same is true of phone numbers and mailing addresses, and now SIP addresses.

It's time to abandon the number-only E.164 international telephone numbers and move on to SIP. It will take a shift in thinking, and it will be hard for people who are accustomed to using "phone numbers", but it will happen eventually. The world became accustomed to email very quickly.

In thinking about how to get beyond E164 number dialing, I discovered a very nice feature of Ekiga voice software: Multiple registries.

So I can have calls come in from other people with Ekiga accounts, at the same time that I buy a telephone number from a VoIP to POTS gateway provider. Any such service, or multiple services. Ekiga will connect through whichever service the user you're trying to connect to uses, if you have an account with that service as well.

And That's The Rub. In order to talk to someone on a particular service, you must either have an account on that service, or find some way to redirect from yours to theirs. Right now, so I read, that's mostly done by using their E.164 telephone number, which means it goes VoIP to POTS to VoIP. This introduces quite a bit of complexity to something that should be very simple.

I have not tested if a VoIP provider can redirect a call to the VoIP provider of the person being called, but I see no reason that it cannot be done, and much easier than calls are routed between POTS carriers now especially since the SIP services do not need vast look-up tables to translate the SIP address. The service provider is overtly and unambiguously part of the standard SIP identifier, All one SIP provider would need to do is redirect the request after checking DNS for that domain, exactly the same way an email is redirected.

But would that request be accepted by a SIP service from someone who was not a subscriber?

Any individual or organization running a SIP-POTS gateway is a target for crackers, constantly being tested for vulnerabilities that will allow access to the POTS network on someone else's dime. A SIP redirect is not an attack, it's not trying to get through to the POTS system, it's just a call to an existing subscriber, so there should be no problem with establishing such redirection as a normal function of all SIP service providers.

It's far simpler than trying to convert E.164 numbers. If the agreements can be put in place to make such redirects normal, so that all I have to do is use regardless of whether or not I have an account on that same service, the inertia that keeps SIP from being adopted en masse will be broken.

Let's get started.

Oh, and if you're wondering why abandon Skype?

Because Skype isn't SIP. It's completely incompatible with anyone else, just like Microsoft likes it.


  1. The trouble with your hypothesis is that by adopting Linux, Linux make themselves relevant, and a client for Linux will continue to be developed. By abandoning skype, Skype will abandon Linux. I agree that Microsoft is unlikley to be keen to support Linux...but at least they have a handful of developers creating a Linux version...if there wer no Linux developers needed here...

  2. Saiftynet, where do I mention anything about restricting this to Linux users?

    My hypothesis is that E.164 has become an impediment to communications.

    Abandon Skype because it's non-standard, and does not lend itself to directly connecting to standard SIP services.

    That is completely separate from my opinion that Microsoft will drop Skype's Linux support. After all, Skype is a desktop application, and Microsoft despises anyone who uses the Linux desktop.

  3. Anonymous18/8/11 20:12

    Ekiga is missing a necessary feature.
    Speak UPnP!
    He needs to open the ports for the communication alone and not rely on manual configuration of the router.

  4. Anonymous18/8/11 20:41

    Your comment on the greatest feature of Skype being its search function is no longer relevant as the windows version has lost this.

    I agree that it was one of Skype's killer features and its removal is a gr8 loss to those of us who used it regularly.

    Come on Microsoft - give us back the search facilities!

  5. Yeah, Microsoft should give us back what we paid good monthly fee for and return the old features back. But nonetheless in the past years I have been cruising around the globe for business purposes, and using Skype on my smartphone really helped me out in different situations.

  6. Well, it's been a couple years, and my concerns are being born out:

    "Shortly after sending HTTPS URLs over the instant messaging service, those URLs receive an unannounced visit from Microsoft HQ in Redmond."