Why Skype and Vonage must die

Mark Gibbs discusses the minus side to the two popular VoIP services

Skype and Vonage illustrate what is wrong with user communications: They are "closed" and not standards based. These strategies support business models that are not in line with 21st century wants and needs. They have to go!

I've been a user of Skype and Vonage voice over IP (VoIP) services for a long time. I use Skype to talk with my editor at Network World and to connect with a few friends back in England, while Vonage has reduced my regular phone bills enormously, particularly for international calls. These things are on the plus side.

The minus side? With Vonage it has been the aggravation factor: It is hard to get good quality, at least over DSL, without resorting to blind experimentation, and using it to support TiVo or a home alarm system is a pain. Even when everything appears to be working with Vonage, you get occasional weird sound-quality problems, and faxing is only moderately satisfactory (incomplete transmissions seem to account for about half of all faxes I send).

Yet again I have to wonder how naive users deal with this. I can't imagine how my wife would begin to figure out what was wrong should I not be here and Vonage stops working. This is yet another example of the huge load of knowledge that the average consumer doesn't have about computer stuff that usually results in minor computer and communications problems becoming insurmountable.

Solving Skype problems is generally much easier because there is no hardware involved, and it works pretty well once you have solved installation problems with firewalls and the like.

But these issues are not what I have a problem with. Nope, my complaint with both services is that they are closed; you can't use products other than those provided by the respective companies, because they don't use standards-based software and the companies refuse to open their systems.

For example, you want to use a softphone with Vonage, the company will charge you US$9.99 per month for the privilege of using its SoftPhone software. Even more ridiculous, after your first 500 minutes of use for US and Canada calls, the company will charge you 3.9¢ per minute even though you're not reaching outside of its VoIP network!

But the real du'oh of these services is that to connect a Skype user to a Vonage user or vice versa requires routing via a 19th century concept: the public switched telephone network!

Why does this lack of openness matter? Because both services use a business model that is designed to lock users in and, in the process, limit connectivity and suppress innovation.

The huge user bases of these services are effectively isolated populations, which means that the well-connected user winds up with at least two independent services.

These services and many other commercial VoIP offerings are just a corner of what is an enormous user-communications problem. It is like having a car to go to the supermarket, another for going to the movies, another for when you go to visit relatives, another when you go to football games ... you get the idea.

The great opportunity and challenge for vendors is how to integrate these services and give the 21st century market what we want and need: open communications. For the greater good, these closed services will have to either evolve or die.

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Mark Gibbs

Network World

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