Thursday, August 16, 2007

Disadvantages of commodity telephony

I love Skype. I mean free calls, no up front cost, no obligation? What’s not to like? Skype is the only way I make calls to Europe and make 3-way calls, although I use a regular (phone number-based) VoIP service for calls in “North America.” I even sometimes help support their “freemium” business model.

But today Skype failed me when I most needed it — when I was trying to finalize decisions for the conference minitrack (on IT standards) that I’ve been running for the past 4 years. I needed to confer with my two co-chairs who are in Europe, but all I got was a Skype client that wouldn’t work, and even a website that wouldn’t come up.

Finally, Skype admitted to their problems on their home page:

UPDATED 16 August, 2007 14:02 GMT: Some of you may be having problems logging in to Skype. Our engineering team has determined that it’s a software issue. We expect this to be resolved within 12 to 24 hours. Meanwhile, you can simply leave your Skype client running and as soon as the issue is resolved, you will be logged in. We apologize for the inconvenience.
Reading between the lines, they did a planned maintenance on Wednesday, suggesting that they installed new software yesterday that doesn’t work. I held off posting this waiting for a resolution, but 13 hours after the original posting they are still making excuses
Author-VilluarakApologies for the delay, but we can now update you on the Skype sign-on issue. … This problem occurred because of a deficiency in an algorithm within Skype networking software. This controls the interaction between the user’s own Skype client and the rest of the Skype network.

Rest assured that everyone at Skype is working around the clock — from Tallinn to Luxembourg to San Jose — to resume normal service as quickly as possible.
and even more excuses
Author-VilluarakEveryone at Skype continues to work hard at resolving the current software issue. We are making good progress. We feel that we are on the right track to bring back services to normal.

We thank you for your continued support and are thinking of you every step of the way.

(Updated at 2:15am GMT)
Once upon a time, people in the U.S. paid for telephone service which was probably the most reliable and dependable function of our entire industrial economy. If the power went out, if there was an earthquake or blizzard, the phones would still work. About the only thing it couldn’t handle was the annual flurry of long-distance calls on Mother’s Day.

The disadvantage was that long-distance calls were way overpriced, until 1969 and 1977 when MCI found a way to arbitrage the cross-subsidy to create America’s fastest growing communications company. After that, a railroad subsidiary decided to string fiber optic lines along its right-of-way and SPrint bragged that you could hear a “pin drop.”

Now VoIP is threatening the Baby Bells, because people would rather have unreliable and low-quality service that’s free, than expensive reliable service. Will there be competition that makes “free” service better? Or are we doomed to have mediocre quality in the name of commoditization?

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Yest said...

Hello Joel,

Well, the only comment is "you have exactly what you paid for". Skype is free, but also there's no guarantee of service, so if it doesn't work -- well, there's nobody to complain to.

There are two problems with Skype. First, it is proprietary system, second, it is a monopoly in a way. Skype defines the user API, that allows to develop applications interacting with Skype client, but it doesn't disclose neither protocol specification, nor server-side API. And it doesn't allow to develop third-party clients or independent server software.

In real life, if your telecom operator goes out of business, you go to another one. Majority of users are not impacted by this issue since the equipment conforms to the public-available standards (i.e. you don't need to trash your phone or PBX when switching to another service), and there's competition on market allowing you to choose the provider. Both are not the case for Skype, inc. The question is "to use or not to use".

Personally, I strongly think to migrate to something SIP-like.

rahul said...

Good Morning,

Seems like Skype has a few more excuses:

Joel West said...

Yes, Yest, open is best. I got sucked into proprietary Skype by European academic colleagues who adopted it without thinking about the lockin. Or — since at least one of them knows as much about proprietary/open standards as I do — because there’s no viable alternative that both works well and has a signficant number of users. What’s particularly sad is my Nokia phone claims to support SIP-based calling, but it was easier to install Fring and use it as a Skype phone than to figure out how to use SIP.

Thanks Rahul for the very useful link. (That’s extra credit this week :-) I just loved Skype's marketing spin trying to deflect blame (and the Gizmodo illustration suggests they share my skepticism):

“The disruption was triggered by a massive restart of our users' computers across the globe within a very short timeframe as they re-booted after receiving a routine set of patches through Windows Update. …

Normally Skype's peer-to-peer network has an inbuilt ability to self-heal, however, this event revealed a previously unseen software bug within the network resource allocation algorithm which prevented the self-healing function from working quickly.”

The bug has obviously been there for a while. And — sooner or later — some sort of patch or other event (a big power failure) was going to trigger a flood of restarts and re-logins. To have a system flakey for two days due to a onetime surge of logins? That’s not a real, operational-quality telephony system.