Why I don’t like Skype (And why you shouldn’t either)

You don’t vacuum, you Hoover. You don’t search, you Google. You don’t call-someone-on-the-internet, you Skype them. So many of the things we do daily, we refer to by their market leading brand names. But I own a Dyson and on a really crazy day I might use Bing, totally ignoring the actual words being used. Conversely, I don’t Gmail someone, I just email them.

Why then, when someone says “Skype me”, do I have no alternative but to open up a proprietary application, running on a proprietary protocol, and be rewarded with a chewed CPU if I’m privileged enough to have a fat pipe to the interwebz?

Communication is so fundamental to the way humans work, that we can’t afford for even a small subset of that to be owned. It doesn’t matter that you’re on Verizon and I’m not. Hell, it doesn’t even matter that I’m on a different continent; I can still call you. Sure, we have to deal with a sub-optimal addressing system (your phone number tells me precisely nothing about you), but there’s no real barriers to communication.

A walled garden could be excused in the case of Facebook, since there is some value in a directory of sorts, but if I want to talk with you, the medium should be open and free. The problem with Skype is also true of instant messaging systems in general. If I want to use AIM and you want to use Yahoo, well then I guess I’ll email you instead.

But real time communications channels need not be like this; we can have all the good stuff about email and even avoid some of the bad. XMPP (or Jabber) has been in existence since 1999 and is an incredibly powerful protocol for most any real-time application, but especially makes for a killer instant messaging system. I can use my own XMPP network, you can use Google Talk, we can all be happy and inter-operate to the lowest common denominator feature set.

But, thanks in large part to Google, the same is true for voice communication. XMPP Jingle is a solid standard (see Wikipedia) and as [your deity of choice] would have it, it’s entirely peer to peer. As long as we both use Jingle compatible clients, it doesn’t matter which XMPP service we route our messages through.

So, if XMPP is so awesome, has no technical deficiencies of note and is even so thoroughly implemented by services such as Google Talk and in open source projects, from Prosody, through ejabberd to Adium, why hasn’t it won yet? The problem, as I see it? “XMPP me”, “Jabber me”, “Jingle me”, “Google Talk me”. Yeah.

There’s a branding gap that XMPP as a protocol, and all it’s implementations have to cross if we’re ever going to make open and free real-time communication via the internet a mainstream phenomenon. We’ve all read Crossing the Chasm (I hope), so I’ll say no more.

We all have work to do here. We need better branding. We need a verb. This is not my strong point, and it might not be yours either, but there’s one thing we can all do: respond to “Skype me” with a link to either http://google.com/talk or http://jabber.org, depending on your politics.

And I haven’t even mentioned the opportunity (or lack thereof) for mashups with Skype vs XMPP.

Ben Langfeld 10 March 2011 Liverpool, England