Internet Phone Service Creating Chatty Network

From the New York Times --

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Internet Phone Service Creating Chatty Network By ETHAN TODRAS-WHITEHILL

JOHN PERRY BARLOW is pretty free and open, but he's no simpleton. So when he signed on to Skype, a free Internet phone service, and a woman identifying herself as Kitty messaged him, saying, "I need a friend," he was skeptical. He figured she was "looking for 'friends' to come watch her 'relax' in her Webcam-equipped 'bedroom.' "

Nevertheless, he took the call. "Will you talk to me?" she said. "I want to practice my English."

Kitty turned out to be Dzung Vu My, 22, a worker at an oil company in Hanoi, Vietnam. They spoke for a long time, exchanging text, photographs and Web addresses, and discussing everything from the state of Vietnam's economy to Ms. My's father's time in the army.

"One doesn't get random phone calls from Vietnam," Mr. Barlow, 57, the former Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy organization for an unfettered Internet, wrote on his blog. "At least, one never could before."

Mr. Barlow's experience is not unique. Skype users report unsolicited contacts every day, and contrary to such experiences with phone and e-mail, the calls are often welcomed.

Skype was founded by Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, the creators of Kazaa, a peer-to-peer file-sharing service. Skype is one of a few hundred companies in the United States that let people talk to one another over the Internet using just their computers and a headset, a microphone or a conventional phone.

The technology, known as Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP), is offered by phone and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast as well as instant-messaging services like Yahoo's and MSN's. Skype says that it has over 2.8 million users in the United States and 30.6 million worldwide and that it is adding users at a rate of 155,000 a day. Skype's biggest competitor, Vonage, a paid VoIP service, has about 550,000 customers.

A reason Skype is so popular is that it is free. Another is that it works. That may not seem like much, but it matters when calls with other free VoIP programs sound more like walkie-talkie conversations than phone calls. Skype also has unusual features: users can search the database of Skype users by such fields as age, language and nationality.

When Skype began, in August 2003, this search feature resulted in unwanted calls for some people. In response, Skype added the Skype Me feature in 2004. Users can now set their user status to Skype Me if they are interested in receiving calls from strangers and search for other users in the same mode.

A preponderance of the random calls involve people "Skyping" one another to practice a certain language (as with Mr. Barlow's experience), but other people seem to be calling simply because they can.

In February 2004, John Andersen, 57, a software engineer in Juneau, Alaska, was contacted out of the blue by two retired couples in Sydney, Australia, planning a cruise through Alaska's Inside Passage region that summer. They wanted to know the best helicopter glacier tours and fishing excursions in Juneau, and Mr. Andersen was happy to send them links through Skype.

They made plans to meet, but Mr. Andersen was away when the couples visited. "I did get a very nice e-mail from them saying the trip had gone off without a hitch," Mr. Andersen said. "It's like ham radio for the Internet."

This was something I had to try. I picked up a $25 headset and microphone combination, downloaded the free software from the Web site (, put a few personal details in my user profile (male, New York, favorite color green) and set my user status to Skype Me. Despite what I had heard, I wasn't convinced that I would get any calls.

Within 15 minutes, I had more callers than I could handle. In the five days I was in Skype Me mode, I received more than 30 calls and messages from Morocco, Russia, China, Poland, Argentina, Israel and several other countries.

One of my most interesting chats was with Billy Einkamerer, 27, a freelance Web developer in Johannesburg. I messaged him first, the Skype equivalent of knocking on the door before barging in. He taught me a little Afrikaans, and we commiserated over our mutual inability to multitask.

I do some Web design myself, so through Skype's instant-messaging feature we traded links to sites we had done; he found an error on one of mine, which I quickly corrected. It was a pretty afternoon in Brooklyn, so I took a snapshot out the window and sent it to him.

Near the end of our conversation, Mr. Einkamerer got a call from his friend Gerhard Jacobs, also 27 and from Johannesburg. Mr. Jacobs runs an information technology company. Mr. Einkamerer conferenced him into the call, and the three of us made jokes about our accents.

It felt like the early days of AOL, another environment in which people contacted others randomly. But voice brings to life the other person in a way that typing cannot, like hearing Mr. Einkamerer laugh at my jokes. The instant-messaging environment is anonymous; with voice, you cannot hide from the other person.

Moreover, the voice quality over Skype is actually superior to traditional phone service. Standard telecommunications are restricted to the 0 to 3.4 kilohertz range to limit the bandwidth consumed; Skype transmits at 0.5 to 8 kilohertz, according to a Columbia University study in 2004. It feels intimate because it is; more of the users' voices reach each other.

There are problems with Skype Me mode. Skype Me users are subject to the undesirable solicitors familiar to e-mail and phone users: spammers, scammers and perverts. Skype is starting to see its fair share of all these groups: one user who contacted me was a Nigerian "model" who requested my help depositing $4,000 in an American bank account -- a classic scheme.

In addition, the blogging community is reporting scattered Skype telemarketers, and women who identify themselves as such in their profile report a bombardment of unwelcome advances when they enter Skype Me mode. These problems appear to be growing.

Skype users can limit callers to people on their contact list, so if the nuisance calls become substantial, the number of users who choose Skype Me mode -- already only a tiny fraction of users, according to Kelly Larabee, a Skype spokeswoman - could disappear entirely.

Government intervention is not a likely fix. In February 2004, the Federal Communications Commission issued the Pulver Order, named after the VoIP pioneer Jeff Pulver, which states that "pure" computer-to-computer VoIP services like Skype and Mr. Pulver's Free World Dialup are no different from the unregulated instant-messaging programs and are not subject to the traditional phone service taxes and regulations.

The Pulver Order is viewed as a victory by many in the VoIP community, including Skype, but it has potentially negative implications for the Skype Me callers: no regulation means no do-not-call list, which means Skype Me users, particularly women, will continue to receive unwanted and unfriendly calls.

Even without government intervention, however, random Skyping appears likely to continue in some form. The next phase may be more formalized Skype-enabled social networks like

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which connects people with similar interests and desire to practice a certain language, and
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which connects people for romantic purposes. Only a few English-language social networking sites currently use Skype, but such sites in Asia have been very successful.

Jyve, according to Charles Carleton, a co-founder, will be introducing a feature in the next few months that Mr. Carleton hopes will protect the medium's social capabilities: an eBay-like feedback system to help users reject callers with a track record of inappropriate conversation. Skype is happy to leave these functions to other companies. "We're probably never going to run a dating service or language seminars," Ms. Larabee said of Skype. "Our business is the technology, not the networks."

Mr. Barlow, who has been inviting people to Skype him for three months, with 20 takers, believes that Skype's intimate feel will be sufficient to keep the Skype Me phenomenon alive.

"There's something confessional about this space," Mr. Barlow said about Skype. He was in Madrid for a conference, and I was in New York. "It's like a long over-the-ocean flight where the other guy starts telling you stuff that you're astonished to hear and you start talking about stuff you're astonished to say. The combination of anonymity and intimacy creates a special kind of environment."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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