Tag Archives: IP telephony

The Fate of New Acquisitions: Whither or Wither?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I’m writing this on a Windows PC using a great piece of Microsoft software called Windows Live Writer. And that’s only part of the problem.

As you no doubt know, Microsoft have announced they bought Skype, the Internet telephony company, for $8.5 billion. You’ll have to look under a lot of stones to find someone who thinks this is a good deal for Microsoft. Skype made $20 million last year on revenue of $860 million, posting a net loss of $69 million because of interest expenses. In short, this is not a company about to fill Microsoft’s coffers with dosh.

Whenever a big company goes on a buying spree I reach for my gun and head for the hills. These things never end well. A few weeks back we heard about Cisco buying and then killing Flip, those great little pocket cameras so simple to use people actually use them. I used to keep a list of these acquisitions, because I naively used to think that a big company buying a smaller one was a happy ending. I’ve nearly always been proved wrong.

Yahoo bought a browser bookmarking service called delicious that they parked in a siding until eventually selling it, a few weeks back, to someone who actually seems to understand the product. In fact a fun game is to quiz Yahoo PR people about the state of their company’s lesser known products and count how many “I’ll have to get back to you on that one” responses. I’ll give you a head start: Ask about Konfabulator, a sort of desktop widgets program which was excellent, but has quietly withered on the Yahoo vine. The developer’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2007.

Yahoo are probably the most egregious offenders but everyone does it. Google boughtJaiku, a twitter-like service that was better than twitter, but have done precisely nothing with it. Nokia bought dopplr, a social networking service for people who travel, and have done precisely nothing with it. (Product blog hasn’t been updated since September 30 2009, two days after Nokia bought it.)

So why do it? Buying companies makes people money, somewhere in the chain. It disguises ineptitude, or it is what is called a defensive play: I’ll buy it so you can’t.

The Skype deal neatly illustrates Microsoft’s problem is a simple one: It lacks direction. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do so it creates a new brand, a new product, a new division—often out of an old one. The product I’m writing this on is part of (frankly the only good part of) the Windows Live array of products—whatever that is; I’ve never quite figured that part out. (Type live.com into your browser and something different seems to happen each time; now it’s a sort of stream of consciousness page that’s more of a stew of Microsoft’s various offerings. ) Windows Live Writer was part of a product Microsoft bought called Onfolio; it has survived, somehow, though few people seem to know about it outside a very narrow group of enthusiasts.

And here’s the rub. Microsoft has no idea what to do with all these products it spews out or inherits, so it forgets about them. Most of you know that Hotmail and Bing are Microsoft products. But how about Lync? Or Kin? Anyone remember Zune? And what is the difference between Windows Live and Windows Live Essentials, for example? Or Windows Messenger, Office Communicator, Windows Live Messenger and MSN Messenger? Or Sync Center, Live Mesh, SkyDrive, FolderShare and Live Sync?

No, I’m not sure either.

Go to Windowsmarketplace.com and you’ll be told that “Windows Marketplace has transitioned from an ecommerce site to a reference site.” Confused yet? Go togetpivot.com, the website of what was billed a year or so back as “the most ambitious thing to come out of Live Labs” and you’ll get directed to, er, bing.com. Live Labs itself was disbanded a few months later. Now old links to Live Labs go to bing.com, which was where those members of the team ended up that didn’t quit. Out of the 14 projects initiated by the lab counted on Wikipedia, all but five are dead. Of those, only a couple seemed to still have any life in them.

When a company diverts a link from one of its own press releases barely a year old to, effectively, nowhere, it’s a pretty good sign that’s where the vision has gone too. This was after all Microsoft’s big research team—at least the most exciting one (Microsoft spends about $9 billion per year on R&D, according to Jean-Louis Gassée, a French analyst.) Microsoft products seem to get lost in a labyrinth of confusing branding, branching and segmentation tunnels, confusing and demoralizing the user to the degree they throw up their hands and go buy a Mac.

Not I. I know about Microsoft products because I use them. A lot. And the more I usemy Mac the more impressed I am with parts of Windows 7.  The problems with the operating system could be fixed in an afternoon: Watch a couple of users try it out and then ask them what was missing. Build those bits into a new version, ditch the trash and you’re good to go. (Some clues: something like iPhoto but better than Photo Gallery for handling photos. Something like iMovie but not Movie Maker. Apple’s products all come pre-installed. Microsoft’s are a confusing, lengthy and intrusive download and reboot away. Oh, and something half way between Microsoft Word ($200 or thereabouts) and the freebie WordPad; Apple’s equivalent Pages costs $20. It’s not as good as Word, but it’s a 10th the price.)

So where is Skype going to fit into all this? Well, the problems start with Skype itself. Since eBay bought it in 2005 it has been something of an orphan, passed around with little idea of what its future might be. It wasn’t always thus. I drank the Kool-Aid back in 2005, and thought like others it was going to change the way we communicated and did business online. I joined the vision of a world where everyone from clairvoyants to business consultants (ok, that’s not such a wide swathe) would offer services over Skype. Audio, text, video, you name it.

That hasn’t happened. For most people it is just a way to avoid paying rip-off phone charges and do the odd video call. Everything else is marginal. The most recent Extra—the add-ons that were supposed to be part of this new Skype ecosystem–is dated January 2010 and that’s just an update on an old program. One guy I interviewed in 2005 had set up a network of 30,000 experts in 50 countries on a website called Jyve.com that was going to piggyback this new Skype-connected world. He’s nowhere to be found now and Jyve.com is an empty page.

eBay didn’t get it, of course, but that’s only part of the story. About a year ago I wrote a piece calling on Skype to realize that it was at heart the world’s most effective social network tool. I wrote:

If Skype dovetailed with Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn it could position itself at the heart of social media. After all, it’s probably the only application that most Internet users have installed, loaded and [have] active on their computer. Unlike Facebook et al, Skype is there, right in the moment. It’s the ultimate presence app.

Indeed, it’s much more like an instant Rolodex (remember those?) than all the other networking services we use. If I want to contact someone the first place I check is Skype—if they’re online, what’s the point of contacting them any other way?

In other words, Skype offers a granularity that other social networking tools don’t: Not only is it comfortable with one to all (the status update message), it’s also comfortable with the one to several (add people to a chat or call), it’s also great at instantly connecting one on one. You can even reach people offline via it, if they have call forwarding enable, or you have their SMS details stored.

No other social network offers that.

Skype sits on every computer (and most smartphones.) By definition all the people the user is connected to are people he wants to actually communicate with—rather than just ‘friending’ or ‘ ‘connecting to’. It’s an easier way to share stuff—photos, files etc–and it’s now pretty easy to set up groups and stuff (In Afghanistan we used it as a way to share security updates; people could see the information in real time or catch up on messages when they got online. In Singapore I use it to talk to my students via teams and the whole class.)

Unfortunately Skype may have read my piece, or they may not. Either way, they half went down this road by trying to throw in lots of things that people didn’t need—including an annoying Firefox extension that turned every number on a webpage into a phone number, including bank accounts. Now Skype is so big and clunky it crashes on my Android phone and my Windows computer.

But in a perfect world Skype works. It’s simple. For many people it’s a telephone. For others it’s a presence indicator: I’m online, I’m not. My computer is connected to the internet (green button showing) or there’s a problem with the connection (grey downer button showing). For some people it’s become a very useful way to organize teleconferences (though don’t talk to my colleagues on an Indonesia project about this; they spend hours trying to get a connection going.)

Skype wasn’t first but it worked better than others, which is why everyone has a Skype account, and why asking for someone’s Skype ID is almost as natural as telling asking for their email address.

But unfortunately I’m not sanguine about a Microsoft/Skype future. Either they integrate the technology behind it into their other smorgasbord of products, in which case you wonder why they didn’t develop the technology themselves, or they leave it as it is. Either way it’s not good: While analysts have focused on how Skype might fit into Microsoft’s non-PC products like Kinect and Xbox, it’s hard to imagine that Microsoft won’t try to shoehorn Skype users into one of its misbegotten sub-brands, losing non-Windows users along the way.

Skype Messenger anyone? Live Skype? Skype Office? Skype Explorer? I shudder to think what will happen. I may be wrong—I’ve been plenty wrong about Skype before—but my fear is of a Skype that gets as clunky and overloaded as MSN Messenger, as bewildering as the Live family of products, as impossible to separate from other Microsoft products as Microsoft Word, as doomed as Outlook Express and anything from the Live Labs mob.

I do hope I’m wrong because of all the networks I have on my computer and cellphone, Skype is still the one I actually need. Skype: whither or wither?

Skype’s 100 Million: Where The Hell Are They?

Internet telephony folks Skype today says that it now has 100 million registered users. A press release (free registration required) says that this was achieved in “just two-and-a-half year’s time [sic], and has nearly doubled in size from September 2005 when it had 54 million registered users.” This is truly impressive. But if this is the case, where the hell is everyone?

My Skype currently shows 3,633,607 users online. Admittedly this is during the Asian day, when traffic is not as high as when the Europeans and Americans wake up. But that’s less than 4% of registered users actually online. OK, allowing for people who are ‘away’ (I believe this excludes them from being counted) and for folk who only go online occasionally, and allowing for the vagaries of actually reporting the total number of users online (actually, another 6,000 users have appeared since I started writing this paragraph), I can’t help wondering whether the 100 million figure is a) a wild exaggeration, down to people registering twice, b) people registering and then ditching it or c) the number of users that appears in the Skype program is just not reflecting reality.

No question Skype is big. And good: Everyone I know has it, some of them people who have resisted the Internet age on an almost Luddite scale. But I just wonder where all those tens of millions of people are. What’s the biggest number we’ve seen online? Anyone seen more than 10 million in one go?

SkypeKiller Or PR Stunt?

Some people, we know, really don’t like Skype. A few people are now building a business on it. Now there’s SkypeKiller (“Your whole network Skype ridden for free”), a French program which will remove all traces of Skype from your network. As its homepage states:

With nearly 200 million downloads and 62 million regular users worldwide, Skype´s IP telephony service has become a real phenomenon.  However use in corporate networks can cause real problems:
* Uncontrollable bandwidth usage
* Uncertainty as to confidentiality
* Potential security flaws
* Productivity issues
* etc …

Thanks, Russell Shaw of ZDNet blogs, who walks us through how to use it. Unfortunately, “SkypeKiller” as a name is much more likely to be assumed to be a program that is better than Skype. And Stuart of Skype Journal reckons it’s more about cheap PR than being a serious tool.
 

The Skype Revolution Hits Teaching

I don’t know if this is the first, but it’s certainly an early example of how Skype and other VOIP products are going to create a new form of business: Accessible voice services. An Online Language School Uses Skype to Teach English:

Isle of Man (UK)-based school Telephonenglish.com [not the most elegant of website names, and you have to wonder how the spelling will rub off on students] has committed itself to using Skype VoIP technology to teach English to its global clients. “The quality and the popularity of the Skype VoIP telephony service makes it the obvious choice for our e-learning services,” said Telephonenglish founder Martin Curtis.

Telephonenglish.com was founded in September 2004 to take advantage of cheap internet telephony as a means of teaching English students around the world who are either too isolated, or simply too busy to travel to a traditional language school for classes.

Why Skype?

“The ability to send files during the lesson, as well as using the text-based chat facility during the e-lesson, makes Skype a perfect platform for affordable online learning,” said Martin Curtis.

So who is Telephonenglish.com? It’s four full-time teachers, and as far as I can figure out from the websites, students get emailed the lessons in advance, download Skype and then will get called by the teacher at a booked time.

The Vulnerability Of VoIP

Listened to an interesting talk by Emmanuel Gadaix of the Telecom Security Task Force at the Bellua Cyber Security Asia 2005 conference in Jakarta. Emmanuel spoke of the security threats to mobile telephony, and while he pointed to the weakness of SS7 signalling — the part of mobile telephony where networks talk to one another — he feels the real threat will come from VoIP. Of Signaling System 7, Emmanuel says: “determined hackers could close down a whole country’s mobile phone network”.

But of VoIP he was more concerned. With many smaller vendors pushing out VoIP services into an already bustling market, vulnerabilities abound: “A lot are still at the beta stage,” he says, “so there will be problems.” And while he stressed that he had noticed that VoIP providers were more aware of security issues than their traditional counterparts, the threat was a significant one. “Full IP telephony will eventually happen,” he says. “And telcos must learn to prevent future threats. You will not be able to ignore them.”

The kind of threats: Denial of service or quality of service attacks, interception of voice traffic, injection of voice traffic (such as SPIT, or voice spam), anonymous and untraceable calls, etc. etc.

WiPhishing: Threat Or Hype?

Is Wi-Fi being used by phishers and other identity thieves? Some folk reckon so, pointing to tricks such as the Evil Twin threat and something called ‘WiPhishing’, which, according to Information Week, goes like this:

“We call WiPhishing the act of covertly setting up a wireless-enabled laptop or access point for the purpose of getting wireless laptops to associate with it,” Cirond CEO Nicholas Miller said in a statement. “Hackers who are on a ‘WiFishing expedition’ may set the name of their rogue wireless access point (or laptop) to an SSID that is commonly used by wireless laptop users.”

For example, a WiPhisher could set the SSID of an access point or laptop to be the same as the default settings for widely-sold access points or hotspot services offered by vendors such as T-Mobile and Wayport, Miller said.

“Hackers are also likely to increasingly post common SSID names on their Web sites as this practice gains momentum,” Miller said.

I’m not trying to be cynical here, because I think Wi-Fi security is a real issue, but these kind of statements are more often than not made by folk who stand to gain the more afraid people are, because they sell ‘solutions’. The Cirond statement, issued on the PR businesswire on Feb 4, was quickly picked up by four or five industry websites including Information Week, SYSCON, Internet Telephony Magazine and InternetWeek (and now, of course, Loose Wire Blog).

So, threat, or hype? Probably both. So we should probably call it a Thrype.