Say Hello to Skype

There’s a new VOIP kid on the block, and you really should take a look at it if you’re interested in making free (or really, really cheap) phone calls over the Internet: I

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) has been a dream of Internet users for years, but until now there have always been… issues, such as poor sound quality, expensive equipment, operating system dependencies, costly rates (even though VOIP is supposed to be cheaper), and an inability to call non-VOIP users who use land lines or cell phones. Well, there’s a new VOIP kid on the block, and you really should take a look at it if you’re interested in making free (or really, really cheap) phone calls over the Internet: Skype.

Let’s get some potential caveats out of the way immediately. Yes, Skype is made by the same people that created KaZaA. No, there’s absolutely no spyware or even adware in Skype. Yes, Skype is closed source and intends to remain that way. (If that’s a dealbreaker for you, then so be it.) No, Skype is not against the law — there’s nothing illegal about using VOIP. In fact, Michael Powell, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commissions, uses Skype. So, feel free to try out Skype. You’re not risking anything.

Of course, since Skype is a phone, you have to hear them and have them hear you. You could use your computer’s built-in microphone and speakers, but really, you need a headset to use Skype. Headsets are cheap and easy to acquire, and the Skype Store (http://www.skype.com/store/) has some good Plantronics models. Get your headset, and then get Skype.

Skype is available for Windows, MacOS X, and Linux (and even PocketPC, if that’s your thing) at http://www.skype.com. There are binaries ready to install for SUSE, Mandrake, Fedora Core, and other systems with various versions of QT. (If you’re using KDE, you already have QT; if you’re a GNOME user, you probably have QT, but make sure first). If you use Debian, the advice on the Skype forum at http://forum.skype.com/bb/viewtopic.php?t= 11131 might be helpful.

Once Skype is installed, the fun begins. If you’ve never used Skype before, you need to create an account: a Skype name, password, email address, and so on (existing users can simply log in). You won’t have a phone number. Instead, your username is how others contact you. Find someone who already uses Skype, and give her a call, or buy some SkypeOut credits and call non-Skype users.

More Than Just a Phone

Skype is a multi-faceted application that provides far more than just free, encrypted-by-default phone calls between individuals over the Internet. You can also call land lines or cell phones, although those cost money, about$ 0.02 per minute, or$ 1.20 an hour, an amazingly good rate. Skype can create conference calls of up to four people (Linux users can participate but not initiate at this time). If you miss a call, Skype lets you know. You can even instant message your Skype contacts if you don’t feel like calling them. Along with instant messages, you can send files (again, using an encrypted connection) to your contacts.

From a technical perspective, Skype is interesting because it’s actually a decentralized peer-to-peer (P2P) program, which isn’t surprising coming from the founders of KaZaA, the most widely used P2P application in the world. You shouldn’t have to worry about network address translation (NAT) or firewalls, since Skype uses port 80, but if you want to punch a hole in your firewall for Skype’s specific port, it enhances the already excellent sound quality. For more on the technical aspects of Skype, see http://www.skype.com/products/explained.html.

If you want help, check out the FAQ s and Users’ Guides on the Skype site. If you want something more interactive, the Skype forum for Linux is active and brimming with good advice. Check it out at http://forum.skype.com/bb/viewforum.php?f= 18.

R. Scott Granneman teaches at Washington University, consults for Bryan Consulting, and writes for SecurityFocus and Linux Magazine. You can reach him at class="emailaddress">scott@granneman.com.

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