Reach out and Skype someone

26 Oct

October 26, 2006

By Geoff Meeker

Last year, I had a client in my consulting business who spent a great deal of time overseas.  Communication was hampered by unreliable cellular connections, bad audio quality when we were able to connect, and gargantuan bills for long distance roaming charges.

One day, the client suggested I download Skype.  It’s a software program that enables free long distance calling over the Internet. My first thought was, ‘Yeah right – lousy sound and even worse connections!’

However, I was desperate. The cell phone thing was not working. So I downloaded Skype (it’s fast and easy) and obtained a headset, which plugs into the earphone and microphone jacks on your computer.

Like most programs and plug-ins, Skype installs itself effortlessly – anyone can do it.  You start Skype exactly the way you would a chat program, by creating a user name and password (I suggest using your real name, as this enables friends to find you easily through the program’s search function). There is a test call feature, to ensure that your mic and earphone are working. You add contacts to your list and immediately you can see if they are online. Then you click the contact’s name and their computer rings on the other end…

This was my first big revelation. The audio quality was better than a cell phone by far, and even better than a land line! Our business meeting became a relaxed discussion, rather than a frenzied garble to complete business before losing our connection. Thus came my second revelation – the connection was reliable and almost never dropped out or faded.

I am a convert to Skype, and I am not alone. The last time I logged on, there were more than 7 million users online. And while my use is business related, Skype will clearly be of interest to anyone in Newfoundland with a relative or friend on the mainland (in other words, the entire population).

The quality of the contact can be enhanced if you bring a webcam into the mix. I don’t use a webcam for business calls – I am not interested in seeing what my clients look like at 6 am or 12 midnight, and I am sure they aren’t interested in sharing – but it is ideal for relatives who want to see how big the nieces, nephews and grandchildren are getting.

Skype works on Peer-to-Peer (P2P) technology, which first gained notoriety with file sharing applications like Napster. “A true P2P system… is one where all nodes in a network join together dynamically to participate in traffic routing, processing and bandwidth intensive tasks that would otherwise be handled by central servers,” says the P2P Explained section at http://www.skype.com. In simple terms, Skype does not have a centralized data or call processing centre. Every computer using the system is part of the network, so overload is not an issue because the network expands automatically with each new user.

On its web site, Skype claims that P2P is better than VoIP (voice over Intenet protocol), the more widely known method of Internet telephony, for reasons of price, complexity and quality. I cannot verify these claims, but there is no question that Skype is easy to use, sounds great and the price is right.

Skype has made some technical advances since my last visit. Security has been improved and data is encrypted so your call cannot be intercepted by others. You can now make calls from Skype to landlines and cell phones in Canada and the U.S., and the service is free until the end of this year. You can also receive calls on your computer from other telephones (for a nominal fee).

This means that, in theory, you can cancel your telephone and cell phone service and make all of your calls (in North America) from your computer. I am not suggesting you do this right away, but it is a development that bears watching…

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