Monday, September 27, 2010

If only Skype worked

I have a love hate relationship with Skype. On the one hand it's an amazing service giving high quality voice and video for free anywhere in the world. I've used it to keep in contact with family and friends from all over the place (and when I was working for 6 months away from home it was a treasured application).

But I also had a really nasty experience with Skype. Five years ago I was working as a consultant from home with clients all around the world. I decided that I would use Skype to save money and I signed up for SkypeIn numbers in the US and UK (I was based in France), and I used SkypeOut to minimize my overseas calling.

Despite having paid Skype lots of money, I gave up using it for business. It was simply too unreliable. It's unacceptable to have what looks like a fixed line phone number fail on you during a call. And Skype's call quality goes from marvellous (the codecs give far better voice quality than a traditional phone) to bad to unusable in seconds. And the thing that kills Skype for business use is that it's unpredictable. Unfortunately, that makes it unusable for business.

It's OK for a mobile phone to have poor call quality because it's understood that the user is moving about in an uncertain environment. The same does not apply to Skype: the expectation is that it'll work.

At the time, France Telecom had an 'all you can eat' monthly calling plan that cost about €70 (it's now apparently €39) and gave me unlimited calls to anywhere in Europe and North America. I wondered at the time if the one good thing Skype had done was driven down the cost of a fixed phone line. And France Telecom never let me down: it simply worked. And simply worked was well worth €70 a month.

Now, lest you think 'five years ago' was the problem, fast forward to today. We use Skype extensively in the office for video conferencing (room and desktop) and it hasn't improved. I hear people constantly having call quality problems, jerky video. And we've paid for high quality headsets, cameras and speaker phones. We have a very fast Internet connection and good quality switches.

All Skype calls begin with "can you hear me?" and many end with "I'll just call you, this isn't working".

Skype: if only it worked reliably.

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If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.

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