From the New York Times --
Internet Phone Service Creating Chatty Network
By ETHAN TODRAS-WHITEHILL
JOHN PERRY BARLOW is pretty free and open, but he's no simpleton. So
when he signed on to Skype, a free Internet phone service, and a woman
identifying herself as Kitty messaged him, saying, "I need a friend,"
he was skeptical. He figured she was "looking for 'friends' to come
watch her 'relax' in her Webcam-equipped 'bedroom.' "
Nevertheless, he took the call. "Will you talk to me?" she said. "I
want to practice my English."
Kitty turned out to be Dzung Vu My, 22, a worker at an oil company in
Hanoi, Vietnam. They spoke for a long time, exchanging text,
photographs and Web addresses, and discussing everything from the
state of Vietnam's economy to Ms. My's father's time in the army.
"One doesn't get random phone calls from Vietnam," Mr. Barlow, 57, the
former Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy organization for an
unfettered Internet, wrote on his blog. "At least, one never could
Mr. Barlow's experience is not unique. Skype users report unsolicited
contacts every day, and contrary to such experiences with phone and
e-mail, the calls are often welcomed.
Skype was founded by Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, the creators of
Kazaa, a peer-to-peer file-sharing service. Skype is one of a few
hundred companies in the United States that let people talk to one
another over the Internet using just their computers and a headset, a
microphone or a conventional phone.
The technology, known as Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP), is
offered by phone and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast as well as
instant-messaging services like Yahoo's and MSN's. Skype says that it
has over 2.8 million users in the United States and 30.6 million
worldwide and that it is adding users at a rate of 155,000 a
day. Skype's biggest competitor, Vonage, a paid VoIP service, has
about 550,000 customers.
A reason Skype is so popular is that it is free. Another is that it
works. That may not seem like much, but it matters when calls with
other free VoIP programs sound more like walkie-talkie conversations
than phone calls. Skype also has unusual features: users can search
the database of Skype users by such fields as age, language and
When Skype began, in August 2003, this search feature resulted in
unwanted calls for some people. In response, Skype added the Skype Me
feature in 2004. Users can now set their user status to Skype Me if
they are interested in receiving calls from strangers and search for
other users in the same mode.
A preponderance of the random calls involve people "Skyping" one
another to practice a certain language (as with Mr. Barlow's
experience), but other people seem to be calling simply because they
In February 2004, John Andersen, 57, a software engineer in Juneau,
Alaska, was contacted out of the blue by two retired couples in
Sydney, Australia, planning a cruise through Alaska's Inside Passage
region that summer. They wanted to know the best helicopter glacier
tours and fishing excursions in Juneau, and Mr. Andersen was happy to
send them links through Skype.
They made plans to meet, but Mr. Andersen was away when the couples
visited. "I did get a very nice e-mail from them saying the trip had
gone off without a hitch," Mr. Andersen said. "It's like ham radio for
This was something I had to try. I picked up a $25 headset and
microphone combination, downloaded the free software from the Web site
(skype.com), put a few personal details in my user profile (male, New
York, favorite color green) and set my user status to Skype
Me. Despite what I had heard, I wasn't convinced that I would get any
Within 15 minutes, I had more callers than I could handle. In the five
days I was in Skype Me mode, I received more than 30 calls and
messages from Morocco, Russia, China, Poland, Argentina, Israel and
several other countries.
One of my most interesting chats was with Billy Einkamerer, 27, a
freelance Web developer in Johannesburg. I messaged him first, the
Skype equivalent of knocking on the door before barging in. He taught
me a little Afrikaans, and we commiserated over our mutual inability
I do some Web design myself, so through Skype's instant-messaging
feature we traded links to sites we had done; he found an error on one
of mine, which I quickly corrected. It was a pretty afternoon in
Brooklyn, so I took a snapshot out the window and sent it to him.
Near the end of our conversation, Mr. Einkamerer got a call from his
friend Gerhard Jacobs, also 27 and from Johannesburg. Mr. Jacobs runs
an information technology company. Mr. Einkamerer conferenced him
into the call, and the three of us made jokes about our accents.
It felt like the early days of AOL, another environment in which
people contacted others randomly. But voice brings to life the other
person in a way that typing cannot, like hearing Mr. Einkamerer laugh
at my jokes. The instant-messaging environment is anonymous; with
voice, you cannot hide from the other person.
Moreover, the voice quality over Skype is actually superior to
traditional phone service. Standard telecommunications are restricted
to the 0 to 3.4 kilohertz range to limit the bandwidth consumed; Skype
transmits at 0.5 to 8 kilohertz, according to a Columbia University
study in 2004. It feels intimate because it is; more of the users'
voices reach each other.
There are problems with Skype Me mode. Skype Me users are subject to
the undesirable solicitors familiar to e-mail and phone users:
spammers, scammers and perverts. Skype is starting to see its fair
share of all these groups: one user who contacted me was a Nigerian
"model" who requested my help depositing $4,000 in an American bank
account -- a classic scheme.
In addition, the blogging community is reporting scattered Skype
telemarketers, and women who identify themselves as such in their
profile report a bombardment of unwelcome advances when they enter
Skype Me mode. These problems appear to be growing.
Skype users can limit callers to people on their contact list, so if
the nuisance calls become substantial, the number of users who choose
Skype Me mode -- already only a tiny fraction of users, according to
Kelly Larabee, a Skype spokeswoman - could disappear entirely.
Government intervention is not a likely fix. In February 2004, the
Federal Communications Commission issued the Pulver Order, named after
the VoIP pioneer Jeff Pulver, which states that "pure"
computer-to-computer VoIP services like Skype and Mr. Pulver's Free
World Dialup are no different from the unregulated instant-messaging
programs and are not subject to the traditional phone service taxes
The Pulver Order is viewed as a victory by many in the VoIP community,
including Skype, but it has potentially negative implications for the
Skype Me callers: no regulation means no do-not-call list, which means
Skype Me users, particularly women, will continue to receive unwanted
and unfriendly calls.
Even without government intervention, however, random Skyping appears
likely to continue in some form. The next phase may be more formalized
Skype-enabled social networks like www.jyve.com, which connects people
with similar interests and desire to practice a certain language, and
www.someonenew.com, which connects people for romantic purposes. Only
a few English-language social networking sites currently use Skype,
but such sites in Asia have been very successful.
Jyve, according to Charles Carleton, a co-founder, will be introducing
a feature in the next few months that Mr. Carleton hopes will protect
the medium's social capabilities: an eBay-like feedback system to help
users reject callers with a track record of inappropriate
conversation. Skype is happy to leave these functions to other
companies. "We're probably never going to run a dating service or
language seminars," Ms. Larabee said of Skype. "Our business is the
technology, not the networks."
Mr. Barlow, who has been inviting people to Skype him for three
months, with 20 takers, believes that Skype's intimate feel will be
sufficient to keep the Skype Me phenomenon alive.
"There's something confessional about this space," Mr. Barlow said
about Skype. He was in Madrid for a conference, and I was in New
York. "It's like a long over-the-ocean flight where the other guy
starts telling you stuff that you're astonished to hear and you start
talking about stuff you're astonished to say. The combination of
anonymity and intimacy creates a special kind of environment."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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