Why Skype Going Retail Is A Step Backward
I remember back in the mid-1990s playing with a couple of VoIP applications on my computer. This was back when proper IP-level access to the Internet wasn’t had by all. Unix shell accounts weren’t all that uncommon back then. But voice over IP was strictly something you did while sitting at your computer back then, that’s for sure. And you know what? A lot of people still think of VoIP as needing a computer, despite the fact we’ve had devices that do VoIP without a traditional computer for several years now. (Yes, I read this somewhere in the blogosphere, but can’t find a link to support my claim. I know, bad journalist. But it’s a blog, and I’m not a journalist.)
Services like Skype, while certainly a lot better than the voice over IP clients of a decade ago, reinforce the stereotype of “needing a computer to use VoIP.” Selling Skype in a “real store” like Radio Shack, while it may not be a bad thing for Skype or Radio Shack, will help reinforce that image of needing to be sitting at your computer to use VoIP, and that is an impediment to widespread VoIP adoption. Thus I personally don’t view selling Skype in Radio Shack as a “good thing” for VoIP in general. Of course, I could be wrong about this. Not the first time.
As I’ve written about previously, the one thing VoIP gives you over your telecommunications experience is control. Under ideal conditions, VoIP gives you the ability to change out any element of the service as needed. Obviously, things like locked analog terminal adapters and lack of consistent local number portability create somewhat of a challenge here, but at least VoIP makes it possible. Quite frankly, that means if people want to use their computer to make a phone call, VoIP makes it possible and provides a cost incentive for doing so. Skype and Gizmo Project also provide some extra functionality, such as presence information (is the person online) as well as an alternate communications path–instant messaging–that can be used prior to setting up a voice call.
At the end of the day, what I’d like for people to be able to see in VoIP is this vision of having complete control over your telecommunications experience. One of the very reasons I am not a big Skype fan is that Skype ties me to a computer. Now it so happens that I spend a lot of time on a computer–too much time quite likely. Why is using the computer for voice a problem? I know how unreliable general purpose desktop computers can be. I don’t want my voice conversation to go down simply because my computer crashed or had some other sort of hiccup. I’d feel “safer” using a dedicated device like an IP Phone or a telephone handset tied to an analog terminal adapter. It also doesn’t help that Skype and Gizmo Project don’t exactly have the best Linux support they could either.