Friday, December 29, 2006

My Top 12 Web Tools of 2006 - Number 3

In the previous post about Meebo I mentioned that I hate talking on the phone. That includes regular land-line phones and cell phones. It does not however include talking over the computer using Skype.

I like Skype for some of the same reasons that I like Meebo. It is similar to an unlisted phone number that I only give to people who I want to hear from. I can easily block undesirables (sales people, etc.) from calling me on Skype. With Skype you can make completely free computer-to-computer calls to other Skype users.

On both trips to Asia during 2006, Skype was the main way that I communicated with both family and co-workers who were back in the States. As the picture can attest, it is great being able to see your kids when you talk to them from several thousand miles away.

You don’t need to use video while using Skype, but it does add to the enjoyment, especially for those of us old enough to remember the video phones from the Jetsons. Any kind of basic PC microphone, even the built-in kind on a notebook will do the trick for audio-only calls. I like to use the Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks for video calls. It is very portable and the tiny integrated microphone works great.

Another good thing about Skype is the instant messaging capabilities. You can text chat even if voice chat is not possible or advisable. The screenshot below was captured when I was in a coffee shop with free wireless access but didn’t want to talk out loud with a bunch of strangers around me.

Other good things:

  • I’ve used Skype to record podcasts while interviewing people at a distance.
  • It is multi-platform and works on Windows, Linux, and Mac.
  • Using Skype Out you can call landlines or cell phones. It has been free during 2006 but there will be a small charge starting in 2007.
  • You can send SMS messages for a small fee as well.
  • You can have a real phone number assigned to your Skype account (I haven’t yet).
  • While in a Skype call (or chat) you can easily share files from PC-to-PC.
There are a few downfalls:
  • A computer on an open network might be used as a SuperNode, consuming lots of bandwidth and opening security risks (in theory)
    1. See recent report of a Skype worm as an example of what might happen as it becomes more of a target for ill-doers
    2. University of Minnesota discourages its use
    3. Inside Higher Ed: Skype Skirmishes
  • Others have to have Skype for you to communicate with them (or you pay for SkypeOut to their regular phone)
  • Skype is now owned by eBay which makes me somewhat worried about whether it will be turned into a profit center that makes it more costly to use and less enjoyable as it becomes more “corporatized”
  • Skype is built with closed protocols on a closed network (not an open standard, so it is proprietary, which is never a good thing)
Last thing, I also really like the potential of the Skypecasts. I have hosted a couple of them myself, and have also joined a couple of others as a participant. Up to 100 people can participate in a Skypecast where the host control the action by muting participants or handing over the microphone, and can even eject people from the Skypecast if they are being noisy or disruptive or just plain icky. Skypecasts are free to host and free to join for the participants. Currently the Skypecasts do not allow video to be used, but that is probably not too far away, at least for the host webcam to project out to others.

Considering all things, I’m still very much pro-Skype. (BTW, Skype does require a download and install on your computer. I errored earlier in stating that two things on my top 12 list required downloads, make that three.)

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