Wk4: Hanging on the VOIP – or why isn’t the telephone dead already?

"Do you know how much this call is costing me?"

Skype is 8 years old this year. Figures last year suggest that Skype has more registered users than even Facebook. So why do so many of us still make phone calls? Why hasn’t VOIP (Voice Over IP) services like Skype and Facetime taken over?

As we explore the answer, let’s step back for a second and look at a parallel technology – SMS. I still get heaps of SMS’s. And I send plenty too. Yet – pretty close to all those text messages are going to a phone with email technology. Why didn’t I save myself a few cents and send an email instead.

There are heaps of reasons.

1) Most people don’t have emails refreshing all the time. SMS’s actually ping people immediately.

2) Although most people do, I can’t be sure their phones take emails. And people use different emails.

3) And hey, sometimes I just don’t have their email.

4) I’m usually connected to a phone network, but not always a data network. This is also a black hole on the other side – what if they have bad data reception on the other end?

5) A smaller point, but many parts of the world doesn’t have the smart phone penetration and network services of a data network.

So plenty of reasons. Which is a shame because it makes so much sense. Why do we need two technologies to send simple text messages from my iPhone to yours? Why do I need a pipe called phone network and a pipe called data network?

Well, because data networks are kinda shit.

It still makes ultimate sense though. I think the SMS will die in the next five years – if not earlier. Because all those problems I laid out above could be fixed easily – and we’re not even waiting for technology to catch up.

I think it will have to be a short-message-direct-service that is not email for one. I think email and SMS type messages should not be mixed. They do different things. So we need to dump the phone number AND the email address. We need something new (Skype username? Twitter username? ICQ number? Who knows).

Then it just needs to run on a data network, not a phone network. And it is automatically set to “push”, not wait for people to login and download. It is a lot like instant messaging, or general chat programs – when you’re logged in!

When someone invents this app, they are going to make a billion dollars.

Which brings me back to Skype – the most famous VOIP service. Why hasn’t Skype killed the telephone?

Look at the pros. It costs nothing (above your net connection). It’s gotten to the point where the voice quality is pretty good, and certainly better than most mobile phones. You can do video chats if that’s your thing.

So what are the cons?

The big one is that no one is on Skype all the time. Or even most of the time. Skyping is an event for most people. You make appointments with people to Skype. And not everyone has Skype. 600 million users might sound impressive. But over 4.6 billion people have mobile phones!

All the reasons that SMS clings onto life apply in some way to it’s voice driven older brother.

But the tide is turning.

Most people I know hopped onto Skype to escape the cost of overseas and interstate phone charges. In 2009, Skype made up 12% of all international phone call minutes – a stat that has been trending up for years.

The dam is going to break, and VOIP services wont be seen as for overseas calling only. Apple’s Facetime is really pushing the personal, emotional value of their video-over IP service, not the price.

And maybe Skype’s reputation has been set, and some other upstart will take VOIP into our homes and every day life. But I think Skype works great – I hope they survive.

In 2003, I spoke to the CFO of the big company I was working for about VOIP. We also discussed Microsoft’s Netmeeting, and the bad quality of the audio. Nowadays, microphones and even cameras come with laptops. But those early uses of Netmeeting brought up another con for VOIP – one that is harder to define.

This one has more to do with human nature. And the wonderful David Foster Wallace summed it up nicely in his masterpiece Infinite Jest.

In that book, videophones took off initially, then people gave up on them, because they felt uncomfortable. This might seem like a trivial point, but I think it’s important. AND, I think it’s weirder without video.

People still feel weird barking conversations at a computer. For over 100 years, we have spoken into a handset. Using VOIP services is like speaking aloud.

I have a theory that for Skype to really catch on, they should build a handset (with two jacks, one for the mic, one for the headphone). If people could speak into a handset, they don’t care if it’s a computer or a phone that routes their call.

Which is also why mobile VOIP is the next big thing. Skype, Facetime and a number of other competitors are jumping onboard Android, iPhones et al. The ultimate handset.

Some of you may know, Skype actually has a mobile phone. The Skypephone didn’t catch on, for all the same reasons that Skype has not really caught on as a whole (and I’m not sure if it’s still in production).

Computers can be just about anything you want it to be. It’s amazing how long it’s taken us to adopt the computer as a phone. But the future is already here. Data networks are just around the corner from a big jump (into 4G speeds, and free wi-fi becoming more commonplace). And everyone’s getting a smartphone.

And it’s up to us, as a whole, to take advantage of it. If you’re not on there, why should I be? We all have to jump in – together.

And we can kill off the telephone for good.

Skype by Numbers – http://gigaom.com/2010/04/20/skype-q4-2009-number/

Utterly brilliant site by Jean Mercier focusing on the stats of Skype – http://skypenumerology.blogspot.com/

A nice summary of the bit in Infinite Jest about videophones. http://kottke.org/10/06/david-foster-wallace-on-iphone-4s-facetime

The Skypephone – http://shop.three.com.au/mobile-prepay-details/3-Skypephone-Prepaid-White

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