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Dumb pipes – why Skype fears Open Source

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SkypeSkype’s Linux version will soon become open source software – and maybe run on every smartphone, TV set-top box or other gadget powered by the free operating system. It could also become part of multi-protocol messengers like Pidgin or eBuddy or Meebo. Or at least that was the hope for some hours today after a French user got the following answer from Skype customer support.

Olivier Faurax had asked for a proper version of Skype for Mandriva Linux and was told:

We understand that many users complain that there is no Mandriva version at present. We are happy to be able to inform you that Skype will from now on be part of the open source community. Therefore Linux developers will be enabled to influence the development of the Skype client for Linux – which will most certainly result in specific versions for the different distributions.

As incredible as this sounded, the wording was unclear so Faurax asked for a release date. He was told that “the Linux Skype version will become open source in the nearest future”. Pretty amazing if it referred to the complete Skype source code. As many devices with an embedded OS run some flavour of Linux, those devices could also be made capable of making and receiving Skype calls.

An example are WiFi routers like the VoIP capable Fritz!Box that millions of German customers got for free with their DSL connection. Not only does the router run Linux but it’s issued with regular firmware updates that add new powerful features by maker AVM. The latest free additions are a print server, answering machine and music streaming functionality. It’s also an analog telephony adapter which means that I can connect a phone to make and receive VoIP calls without the need for a computer.

I use it with ten different VoIP providers and therefore I am reachable under German, British, US and even Peruvian numbers on the same phone. The only thing that’s missing is Skype, that’s why I rarely use it. And it will probably stay that way, judging from the latest Skype blog post. After Olivier’s story got Slash Dotted and everyone went crazy, Skype declared officially:

Yes, there’s an open source version of Linux client being developed. This will be a part of larger offering, but we can’t tell you much more about that right now. Having an open source UI will help us get adopted in the “multicultural” land of Linux distributions, as well as on other platforms and will speed up further development. We will update you once more details are available.

That doesn’t sound so euphoric anymore. The statement only refers to an “open source user interface” not the entire Skype source code that, crucially, includes the needed protocols for voice transmission through firewalls, for example. As I understand it, an “open source user interface” alone won’t be sufficient for developers to utilise Skype as a service inside of other software or devices. That’s probably to avoid becoming “the dumbest pipe of all”, as I once called it in a blog post.

When people can make their Skype calls on other software, normal phones or wherever, they could potentially use Skype for inbound calls and for the free Skype-to-Skype calls only. Paid outbound calls to phone networks would be channeled over Skype’s competitors who offer cheaper prices. Companies like Sipgate or Voipbuster always stress this point in their advertising. In August, I got this email:

As it is now becoming more and more clear that Skype’s services will not be available much longer because their software license will expire, it is now the time to switch to VoipBuster. […] To make sure everyone can still use Voice Over IP at even cheaper rates than Skype, Voipbuster has lowered loads of destinations.

Sipgate basically said the same in a press release from August. Everyone wants to eat from Skype’s lunch. That’s why they’re treading so carefully with open source.