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.


Dogsbody said...

Skype also makes a good cheap security tool. Fire it up and if there is a way out of your network to the interwebs then Skype will find it! :-p

rip said...

Hi --

This may be known. But it wasn't in the OP so I'm bringing it up:

Skype's original technique was internet telephony based on peer-to-peer technology. When you made a Skype call, your voice was digitized, encrypted and shunted between passive Skype users (ie, people with Skype running in the background, but not actually talking to anyone).

The voice packets would then be routed from user to user until it arrived at the destination computer. The path fine-tuned itself during use, so theory would have the quality improve during the course of the a closed system (just you and your conversation partner). But the system isn't closed.

This was the reason for the dropped calls, dodgy quality, etc: When you quit Skype, or made a call, all effected paths would have to reconfigure themselves on the fly. The users who were routing through your bandwidth were now sharing that bandwidth with you, or had to now find a new path. If someone who you were "freeloading" through on your call quit Skype or made a call, it curtailed or limited their bandwidth available to you, again decreasing quality and maybe forcing a new path selection.

This may no longer be the case, however, as I haven't kept up to date on them, and their website no longer makes claims to this technique (at least I couldn't find any).

Installing a bandwidth shaping tool on your node, in order to prioritize Skype packets, increases your ping scores...and so works as an attractant to other Skype users' paths.


Leslie said...

Skype has some configuration options that enable it to work a whole lot more predictably (carrying on from the last comment). In particular, the port configured to be the listening port. If this is configured, and the other party also has similarly configured listening port, I believe that the connection is more predictable, since the Skype super-nodes (or registration servers?) then just simply direct traffic straight to that port - no reliance on other node-hops.
I've watched Leo Laporte many times broadcast 3rd party Skype video calls via his TWiT system.

yorksranter said...

In my experience, a big % of all Skype issues are audio/video hardware things, including the "I'll just call you" ones.

For ages I had a weird buzzing sound, until I got a USB headset. But my favourite cockup was when I took part in a conference call and nobody could hear me - and they didn't bother to say, so I spoke into a vacuum through a teleconference of over an hour.