Sunday, May 28, 2006

Skype's missing dial tone

I came across the lament of Steve Smith caused by the decline of Skype’s presence component usage. I believe this is the inevitable outcome for a company that never properly understood presence.

Let's go back in time to the origin of Skype. It was born as a clever technical workaround to remedy SIP's inability to properly negotiate NAT traversal. The Skype protocol relies on clients outside a NAT device to proxy for clients behind the NAT device. As a consequence, a client may be used without its user's knowledge or consent to relay Skype traffic. In effect, Skype has an approach similar to what mail spammers do when they use a compromised computer as a relay... For those interested in digging further, this post provides additional sources on this closed protocol hidden features and their consequences.

So, in the beginning was the word, and voice filled the Skype space. Skype users had to wait until October 2004 to discover presence. Fourteen months after Skype was presented to the world as the "arrival of P2P Telephony". In essence, Skype is one of these clever companies that perfectly masters the art of surfing the wave of existing and emerging technologies. Don’t you see how Skype rhymes with hype... Looking at Skype's press releases over the first year gives a pretty good idea of the company’s positioning as "the Global Internet Telephony Company". The press announcements provide all the mandatory ingredients to reinforce this positioning, including the community building, the minimal instant messaging features, and the phone peering agreement negotiations. It becomes easy to conclude that, from the start, Skype’s business model was to become a VoIP phone company. This is not very original, but in October 2004 they cleverly announced "one million simultaneous users globally connected to each other at the same time" and added they had "served more than two billion minutes of free Skype-to-Skype calling". With a technology entirely built on point-to-point communication, Skype own infrastructure had nothing to do but authenticate these users. How could they claimed "serving" anything with an overlay point-to-point network? The actual transport capacity was in fact provided entirely by the Internet without any Skype resource being involved. What a marketing mastery!

And presence in all this? I always refer to presence as the “glue” that improves users’ ability to communicate and interact in true real-time. It ties together applications that previously lived in isolation. Presence is a dynamic extension of an entity's digital representation on a network; it describes one or many states, exposing entities’ ability, means and overall willingness to engage in a transaction. Typically, a presence engine manages the connectivity status of users, their devices and their capabilities. In the case of Skype, as it implements a point-to-point overlay network, I believe presence state changes are processed locally by the clients. As a consequence, only online/offline state would really be used to determine the ability to communicate. Skype allows several clients to be logged in for the same entity. In this context, the client side logic makes it difficult to aggregate an entity’s multiple availability information and present it to a contact. In turn, it decreases the ability to leverage presence to re-direct or temporary divert a call according to certain states. In an enterprise context, the client side logic is not the best design to fully take advantage of collaboration indicators, such as calendar based presence.

Presence can have a tremendous impact when implemented and used as the new "dial tone" in a communication system. Let’s consider an example. Many business process delays result both from inadequate access to missing information, and from users’ inability to locate and briefly interact with peers regarding such information. By enhancing the ability to reach a colleague using the most appropriate communication channel, presence addresses this recurrent business challenge. With presence, we no longer request, we subscribe!

Granular presence states, coupled with the ability to inject collaboration indicators and use rules are powerful enhancements to a VoIP communication system. When on the contrary, presence is reduced to an online/offline binary information, it looses any advantage over the POTS dial tone. In Skype, presence is derived from the call management, not integrated as the nervous influx in the system architecture. A typical carrier approach, where the business model relies entirely on the peering agreements and associated traffic clearing houses, not on services. Skype cleverly rode the presence hype without harnessing its power. And Skype will go back to what it really is: a proprietary non-interoperable VoIP phone provider.

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