service via the Internet moving into the mainstream
by Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver
28-October 4, 2004; issue 779, High Tech Office
When I first got started on the World Wide Web back in 1994 it always
impressed people seeing the Virtual Louvre website (still online at www.ibiblio.org/wm/
learned it had no connection with the real Louvre, but nevertheless
pictures of art were appearing on my computer, all the way from France,
with no extra charges for long distance.
That light bulb lit up for a lot of people: the Internet made it
possible to make connections halfway around the world for the same
price as connecting to a computer down the street. Now all you need is
a way to connect your phone to your computer, and goodbye long-distance
Early attempts at so-called VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) were
awkward, marred by poor sound and general geekiness. But lately, VoIP
has been making inroads, with companies like Nortel and 3Com
replace traditional PBX phone systems with cost-saving Internet
It's been slower to catch on amongst home and small business users,
and others are
selling plans promising cheap rates and the ability to choose an area
code and calling area anywhere you like.
A new service, Skype
to be the quickest and easiest way for many to cut loose from the phone
companies. Interested? Download the software (for Windows, Linux, Mac
OS X and Pocket PC handhelds) from www.skype.com
It's a quick and painless install. To use it, you'll need a microphone
attached to your computer.
Most laptops have a tiny pinhole mike somewhere, or you can attach a
standard headset with microphone. And you'll need an Internet
connection; Skype claims anything from a 33.6 kbs modem will work,
though a broadband connection is better.
From your computer, you can "phone" anyone worldwide who is also
running Skype for free. In additional to voice, you get text messaging
and file transfers. Though you get a virtual dial tone, and ringing on
the other end, this is not really a big deal.
More interesting is what Skype refers to as SkypeOut. With this
service, from your Skype-running computer you can phone pretty much any
land line or cell phone anywhere in the world. Not free, but rates are
pretty affordable; Skype's prices are in euros (the company is based in
Estonia). You buy 10 euros (or more) credit then make your calls, with
charges of about two cents a minute for calls within Canada, the U.S.,
and the U.K., three cents a minute to call Chinese numbers, etc. Voice
quality is surprisingly good. Calls between two computers offer much
better fidelity than phone service. The program plays nicely with most
home and office firewalls.
The founders of Skype are a pair of Swedish programmers who wrote (but
don't own) KaZaa, the most popular of the post-Napster music trading
programs. And like that program, Skype relies on peer-to-peer
connections; the program runs in the background on your computer even
when you're not calling, using some of your network bandwidth and
computer processing power to help transmit other people's calls. (If
you don't want this, it's easy to turn off the little Skype icon on the
Windows system tray when you're finished calling).
It won't totally replace your traditional phone. Standard phone service
remains cheaper for local calls. Outsiders still need to call you by
phone (unless they're also Skype users). And you can't get 911 on a
service that doesn't know where you're located.
But I'm using it for all my long-distance calls. I'm not afraid to look
like some kind of geek talking to my computer.