Originally created 11/24/03

Skype offers telephone-like communication



TALLINN, Estonia -- It's the moneysaving potential that's likely to draw your attention to Skype, the Internet phone software whose creators are bent on displacing the POTS, or plain old telephone system.

Certainly, there is no disputing the cost savings. The software is free, created by the same anti-establishment programmers who wrote the music file-sharing application Kazaa. Free versus whatever you're now paying for more traditional phone service is, on the surface, an unbeatable deal.

The question, though, is whether that makes up for some of the frustrations I experienced using Skype, which, granted, is still in beta, or test phase. On balance, it does.

On a good day, with a faultless broadband line, Skype's sound quality is awe-inspiring, especially considering that the communication is wholly decentralized. It is near and sometimes even surpasses the quality of run-of-the-mill landline or mobile phones.

Skype's also a breeze to set up.

Armed with an online PC - one running Windows 2000 or XP - a microphone and headset, you can be calling (or "skyping," in the lingo of aficionados) just five minutes after downloading the program from www.skype.com.

Skype (pronounced SKY-pee) can also be used with Windows 95 and Windows 98, though compatibility's not a sure thing. There are no Mac or Linux versions.

Users enter a password and some contact details for Skype's user-friendly online phone book - indexed by country of origin, user name and 12 other categories. With its search tool, it's a cinch to locate and call friends, relatives and associates.

You can only talk to people who also are using Skype, but if you reach them on a good line, Skype works like a dream. Knowing you're paying next to nothing - even if you chat for half the day to friends halfway around the world - makes this doubly thrilling.

Other times, it's considerably less fun.

Slower Internet connections or ones that keep slipping offline cause the sound to deteriorate or conk out completely. An inferior link can produce delays of several seconds - giving users a sense that they're speaking with someone on the moon.

So unless you can use Skype on faster lines, don't bother at all. Even with better connections, quality can occasionally be erratic - with the volume fading in and out or with the sound taking on a tin-can quality.

Skype is also subject to that variable so often at the root of life's failings - other human beings.

Headphone sets not plugged in or turned up properly by technically challenged users can foil attempts to talk to your party - even when Skype signals you've reached them successfully.

You're also dependent on the person you wish to call being at his or her computer. If they're not, you may be reduced to calling them on that Plain Old Phone and asking them to log on - which rather defeats the purpose of having Skype in the first place.

Of course, since you can only call other Skype users, anyone determined to use it to order a pizza is sure to go hungry. If the house catches fire, Skype is decidedly not the way to call 911.

Similar to peer-to-peer Kazaa, Skype exchanges data packets directly from one personal computer to another - not via a central server. It purportedly directs that data through the quickest networks so quality isn't degraded. Skype works through most firewalls, software used by many firms to monitor traffic in and out of its computers. And privacy is assured by encryption.

I saw no signs of spyware. Skype, in a nod to the scads of it found with Kazaa, proclaims it to be free of both spy- and adware.

To be sure, several other services have used the Internet to carry phone calls cheaply or even for free.

One, Free World Dialup, promises to connect its 75,000 users not only to other members but also to users of certain other Internet-based services. Free World Dialup requires special hardware or a software "SIP phone" that turns conversations into data packets and vice versa.

Skype, meanwhile, has a dramatically expanding universe, with 3 million people having downloaded it just three months after its launch. At that pace, it could eventually break into the same league as Kazaa, which - to the horror of the recording industry - has a whopping 300 million users.

According to Skype's online directory, virtually every country on earth now has a budding Skype community - from Afghanistan to Peru, from Swaziland to China.

It's easy to see how cash-poor students studying far from home and some phone-reliant firms with branches abroad could embrace this program even with its shortcomings.

Others, quite rightly, may approach Skype with a bit more skepticism.

But if executives at traditional phone companies aren't losing sleep over Skype, they might soon. Skype's creators have vowed to iron out kinks and add new capabilities, including enabling calls to mobile and landline phones from Skype.

Skype may yet live up to its revolutionary billing.

On the Net:

http://www.skype.com