Well, no, it looks as if it’s for real, and for once it’s European. But whatever it is, or isn’t, Skype (the most popular of the Voice Over Internet – VOIP – applications) is certainly getting a lot of press coverage at the moment. James Fallows of the NYT has been kind enough to test it out for everyone:
While running, Skype sits in a little window, like an instant-messenger program, and lets you talk with other users in two ways. If the other person has Skype installed, you can talk as long as you want, free, and with sound quality that is startlingly better than that of a normal phone connection…..
You can also reach people who don’t use Skype, through a new service called SkypeOut. This allows you to dial nearly any cellular or land-line telephone number in any country and talk. Though it isn’t free, it’s cheap. Skype’s prices are in euros – its founders are Scandinavian, the main programmers are Estonian and its headquarters are in Luxembourg – and they average two or three cents a minute, at any time of day.
Meanwhile back in London Ofcom (the UK telecom industry regulator) have decided to establish the prefix “056”, which will allow phone users to switch from the existing 11-digit telephone numbers to a new Internet broadband 11-digit phone number. Stephen Carter, Ofcom’s chief executive is quoted by Reuters as saying that “”Broadband voice services are a new and emerging market. Our first task as regulator is to keep out of the way.” Good for him.
Of course in one sense Skype is the ultimate in social software, facilitating the development of a young interconnected broadband elite. Simple economics should indicate that as the marginal cost of communication drops rapidly towards zero the quantity should increase. Indeed could we be witnessing the simultaneous rise of two phenomena: densely clustered local networks supported via mobile phones, and more sparsely clustered, but economically highly interesting, global nets facilitated through a platform of broadband connectivity?
So with references to Google and E-Bay abounding the only remaining question seems to be whether Skype will become the latest in the line of new economy, increasing returns, monopolies. Their website claim that they have already provided over 21 million downloads suggests they may be. Will you be the next?