The hype on Skype

Skype has been in the press quite a bit lately, particularly with E-bay buying them for $2.6B. For those who are not familiar with Skype, it is a Peer-to-Peer (P2P) messaging application created by some of the original developers of the Kazaa P2P file sharing tool. Skype uses a proprietary P2P protocol instead of the SIP (Session Initial Protocol) and codecs used by other VOIP/Messaging systems. Skype clients are available for MS Windows, Apple Mac OS X, Microsoft Pocket PC (Windows Mobile), and Linux. Skype has also added “SkypeOut” that allows a Skype user to call any direct dial phone number in the public telephone network at extremely competitive rates, and “SkypeIn” (Still in Beta) that allows a Skype user to purchase regular telephone numbers in a number of locations that can be dialed to reach the user through Skype. After testing Skype a bit more lately I have come to some conclusions:

  • The Skype clients on Windows and Mac OS X are quite stable
  • Skype tends to update all of the clients frequently, Mac and Linux users arent left behind
  • Audio quality of the P2P protocol is excellent, particularly for Skype-to-Skype calls
  • SkypeOut works mostly as advertised. Audio quality isn’t to land line standards all the time but its acceptible and similar to mobile phone quality
  • SkypeIn seems to work well with the same call quality as SkypeOut. I have two SkypeIn numbers, one in Boston, and the other in London – both work equally well.
  • Skype has instant messaging and file transfer capabilities
  • Skype has voicemail
  • As of right now Skype is NOT meant to be a telephone replacement and doesn’t directly compete in that market like some of the VOIP providers.
  • Skype publishes an Application Programming Interface (API) that enables anyone to create add-ons or other software that leverage or ehances Skype’s services. One such company is iSkoot of Cambridge, MA that makes an add-on that allows you to use Skype capabilities from your mobile phone.
  • Many hardware vendors make various gadgets that work with or enhance Skype, such as handsets, headsets, etc. Linksys has recently released a cordless handset that you can carry around your home/office that uses Skype via your PC.

I don’t currently use Skype on a regular basis for “production” use. But I do intend to use it in a couple of weeks when I am in the UK to call clients/home for ~$.02/Min. I also plan to pick up the Linksys cordless phone and will post my thoughts on that after playing with it for a while.

Some people wonder why E-bay purchased Skype but I think a quick look at both copmanies show that they’re all about building and connecting communities. Im sure there are synergies that will emerge from this merger – most of which are probably not obvious to us now. Some are also concerned that E-bay will somehow destroy what Skype has become but I am optimistic that they wont – their track record with PayPal has been pretty good so far.

There are now some alternatives to Skype, including the Gizmo Project that look promising. Gizmo has some neat features, is also cross platform, and seems to allow you to use regular SIP phones with the service. However, Scott and I did some testing of Gizmo and we couldnt seem to connect between my PC laptop and his G5 running Mac OS X. We’ll probably test it more in the future – but after a few unsuccessful attempts I lost interest and moved on to other toys.

Really liking the Blackberry

As of August 2005 I have joined the ranks of the Blackberry toting corporate types. I had a Blackberry device years ago (~1999) that I mostly used as a 2-way pager – it was OK but once inter-carrier SMS text messaging became available with cell phones I saw no point in carrying two devices. Since then I had largely grown to despise the device – simply because they tended to be used by annoying corporate types as a tool to ignore people in meetings. In the past year or so I have been finding myself away from the office a fair bit, including international travel and would find myself coming home to a backlog of 100+ email messages per day. I needed a way to stay in touch (mostly in between meetings – not DURING them) with e-mail. A couple of people fueled my desire for a Blackberry – the first was Scott who kept mentioning that his new company had a deal on Blackberries and that he was thinking of getting one – the second was a client of mine who was testing the Blackberry and let me play with the device. Within 2 hours of playing with one I bought one, and within 6 hours after that I was up and running with Blackberry Enterprise Server service on my Microsoft Exchange e-mail account. Here is what I have determined so far:

  • Blackberry Enterprise server makes the device VERY useful. It keeps everything in perfect sync between my Exchange in-box, my calendar and my contacts.
  • The Blackberry 7290 device that I use is Quand Band GSM and will work just about everywhere in the world where there is GSM service.
  • Cingular’s $65/Month (on top of a voice plan) Blackberry International plan provides me with unlimited data usage in just about any country I would ever need to visit. I cannot find a less expensive way to have “always connected” e-mail while travelling around the US and internationally.
  • The device is awkward as a phone. Thats OK though. I mostly interested in it for data. Its probably fine for someone who wants to carry a single device that is mostly used for e-mail and sometimes used for voice. I prefer a phone for regular voice use though.
  • The keyboard is just OK. Its better than using T9 on a phone device but I find myself keeping messages short because its not as pleasant to use as a larger keyboard.

Bottom line – if you are a Microsoft Exchange user the Blackberry is an amazingly powerful device that will keep your e-mail, contacts and calendar in sync with your Exchange account in real time. I tested it briefly with POP and IMAP and its OK but it REALLY shines with Exchange keeping all of my PIM information in perfect sync while on the road. The new Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0 looks pretty slick and I will keep an eye on that for the future but for today the Blackberry suits me just fine and I can certainly see why it has achieved a slang name of the “Crackberry” by people who have used it!

VOIP – The Plunge is Complete

My residential line is now fully converted to VOIP. After clearing my home phone of some RingMate numbers (distinctive ring numbers from Verizon) I initiated a port request with Galaxy Voice by faxing in a Letter of Authorization. Approximately 5 business days later they informed me by e-mail that the port was complete. I verified that my residential line went dead and the number was now ringing on the VOIP line.

Some interesting items of note:

  • Sound quality is excellent. Virtually indistinguishable from the land-line it replaced.
  • I had a couple of glitches completing a call to the UK. After re-trying later it worked fine though.
  • When I call people they get my phone # on their caller ID but no name (this isnt such a bad thing!).
  • Im loving the ability to tweak my features/settings via the web.
  • The VOIP line is FREE!

Bottom line: Im glad I did this. I was paying $60/Month for a land line that I rarely used. This has been replaced with a free line with more features. For $20/Mo. I can get unlimited calling to just about anywhere I care to call (US plus about 20 countries). 911 supposedly works (hopefully I never get to test it) – however I am still glad I have some traditional land lines in the house for my business. I don’t think I would be totally comfortable having VOIP as my exclusive phone service – Im just not totally trusting of the public Internet when it comes to 100% reliability. A land line phone just works when you need it.

Tivo vs. Cable PVR

As many of you know I have both a Tivo and a cable company provided Personal Video Recorder (PVR). The PVR that I had was a first generation unit and I completely hated it. The thing had no concept of a show/program and could only record based on time slots. Given that networks like to shift their schedules a fair bit (especially Fox on Sunday nights!) I often found out that what I was expecting to watch wasn’t what was recorded! The only reason I kept the PVR was because it was the only device available to me that could record High Definition (HD) content.

About two weeks ago the PVR died. RCN dispatched a technician who replaced the PVR box with a new second generation unit. While I agree that its not a Tivo I do find myself using the new PVR alot more than the old unit. After 10 days with it I decided to think about the pros and cons of the new PVR vs. Tivo.

Tivo (Series 2 Pioneer with DVD Recorder)

  • Great User Interface – it just makes sense!
  • Understands shows/programs and not just timeslots (Season Pass feature is great.)
  • Records things I might like to see – and it often gets it right
  • Lets me define keywords and records shows relevant to these
  • Networkable with other Tivos in the house
  • Web interface for scheduling recordings (useful when I travel)
  • Shows can be burned to DVD media for saving or watching on the road
  • Shows can be downloaded to a computer for portable viewing


  • Can’t record high definition content
  • Can’t record one program and watch another live show at the same time
  • Seperate charge for Tivo service billed to credit card (lifetime subscription available too)

Cable Company PVR

  • Dual tuners means I can record one show and watch something else live
  • Records high definition content
  • Understands the concept of a show/program not just time slots
  • Billed to my existing cable bill


  • Doesn’t try to record things I might like to watch
  • Standard definition recordings appear grainy and have lots of artifacts
  • Program guide not as nice as the Tivo one
  • Doesn’t seem to understand the concept of First Runs vs. Repeats properly. I set up the Simpson’s to record first run shows but I seem to be getting old episodes that appear nightly as well. This is probably a program guide issue – but its still annoying.

So for now I’m keeping both – the PVR will be used primarily for HD content, and the Tivo will continue to be my preferred tool for recording standard definition content and for recording shows it thinks I might enjoy (and often do!). If Tivo ever comes out with a unit that does HD well (or my cable company ever provides a PVR box that uses Tivo software) I would probably switch to a single device.

The ROKR Phone

OK. I admit it. Im a tool. I had to have the new Motorola ROKR phone the day it was available in stores. So Scott picked up a couple of them and I started to play with it while finishing up some work. After configuring the phone (it was easy – the phone portion is standard Motorola GSM phone functionality) I tried to load some Podcasts on it using the new iTunes 5.0 on my OS X iMac G5. iTunes wouldn’t recognize the phone…. So, I figured – let’s try iTunes on the PC. The PC version of iTunes saw the phone right away. This is great – iTunes is an Apple product but the thing wont work on my Mac?!?!?!? After checking Software Update on the Mac I see there are no new updates. A quick check of the support forums on Apple’s site shows that alot of other people are experiencing the same problem on their Macs. So at least Im not alone. About 1/2 hour later I decide to check Software Update again – and voila – Apple has released a driver for the ROKR phone for Mac OS X. Install the driver, reboot, and iTunes 5.0 now sees the phone and I get to play with it. Some initial impressions:

  • The audio quality is pretty decent!
  • The phone makes use of it’s vibrate capability to mimic a sub-woofer. Cool!
  • The “iTunes” software on the phone is limited but acceptable
  • Why no EDGE for data? GPRS Only? This is 2005!
  • Camera is OK – but why .3MP and not 1MP or more? Again, Its 2005!
  • Battery life is amazing. I talked for a couple of hours on Friday and the indicator didn’t move.
  • RF seems excellent. I talked using my bluetooth headset while driving 20 miles in the car – no issues.
  • Tri-band (850/1800/1900)? Why not Quad-band these days?

A few more days of testing is in order. But my initial thought – if you want a decent (not state-of-the-art feature wise) Motorola GSM phone that happens to play iTunes and has good audio – this is a good phone. If you’re looking for the Apple “ambience” and iPod experience – you will be disappointed.

VOIP – Making the Plunge

OK, so I have been testing VOIP for the past few weeks with a free VOIP line from Galaxy Voice in Newton, MA. I think Im going to make the plunge and use it in place of my existing residential line. I have started the process of preparing my residential number for porting to Galaxy. This is actually a bit of work because porting a wireline phone number requires that:

  • The line is clear of any DSL service (I used to have DSL on this line)
  • There are no additional distinctive ring numbers on the line (I have two “Ringmate” numbers)
  • There are no outstanding service orders/requests

If any of the above are true – the port will fail. So im starting down the path now of making sure DSL is officialy removed, the Ringmate numbers are disconnected and the service orders for both are closed. Once that is done Galaxy can start the port process and the real fun begins.

Galaxy uses RNK for their VOIP service. RNK provides E911 services and so far seems pretty reliable. The VOIP Adapater that Im using is from Sipura and its plugged into the server and network UPS so I should continue to have phone service if the power fails. In any event I still have business lines here with Verizon so the loss of the residential line would never be more than a minor convenience.

Ill keep you posted!