Phones Aren’t About Telephony

Skype is a powerful tool because it’s found its way into the hands of people who need it most — ordinary folk. Now it and the companies that make devices to use Skype on need to understand that it’s not about telephony anymore, if it ever was. It’s about two or more people sharing each others’ presence. Now we need the products to make that happen.

I was chatting with someone last night, a gent in his early 60s from LA, who should have retired but decided to take on one more project, in Hong Kong. He was in two minds about it because it would mean a year away from his wife, but he was persuaded because he knew Skype would keep him in touch. Of course it could be any VoIP tool, but the point here is that Skype was the first to cross the threshold into this market because it was easier (and worked better) than all the others at the time. Now the guy can chat with his wife every night and being apart is bearable and not making him too poor.

But he was still using it as a phone: Call the other person up, chat and then hang up. Had he ever thought about just leaving the line open, I asked him? Why would I do that? he replied. Because it won’t cost you anything, and then you’ll hear the sounds of home, which in a way is what you’re really missing. Your wife banging around in the kitchen, the kids arguing, a dog barking, the sound of the wood pigeon in the garden (OK, that’s more my memory of home than his. Not sure they have wood pigeons in LA.)

I then realised that actually there would be a great line of products here. Wireless devices that you could place around the house, outside, some that are just microphones picking up sound, and others that also serve as speakerphones, so his wife can just wander around and, when she wants to, chat as well. Of course, a Bluetooth headset might do the trick, and maybe there are some wireless handsets that might work. I’ve done a quick search and not found any obvious candidates. Most seem to assume you want to use Skype as a phone. But Skype is not really about phones anymore. It’s about presence — on one side, showing other people whether you’re available, etc, and on the other, allowing you to teleport yourself to the person you’re with without the old restrictions of the phone: cost, the structured nature of phone conversation, having to press a device to your ear.

Manufacturers, it’s true, are beginning to wake up to the idea that we don’t use our devices in the way, or the place, they’re designed for. Take the percushion pillow phone, for example, which finally solves that problem of trying to have a conversation with someone while you’re trying to get to sleep. That’s a good start. Now lets see devices that use sound and vision to make anyone, including my new homesick friend, to really feel they’re home.

Skype Is Making Me Look Fat

I’ve always held up Skype as a revolutionary tool, not for the voice over Internet thingy, although they definitely were the first to make me sound less like a frog when I talked to folk online. No, the revolutionary bit for me was that their software was simple enough for even the most technology averse of my friends, readers and relatives to install without too many pleas for help. Good stuff. And no small feat. But now they seem to be almost deliberately blowing it by making those who do request help jump through so many hoops I wouldn’t blame them for throwing out the program in disgust.

Skype-support2Try it: the Skype help system does everything wrong. First off, there’s no useful list of the likely problems users may encounter, bar a list of five “popular knowledgebase topics” like “what is relayed transfer”. There is no way to reach a live person — which there should be, at least for paying customers — and searching the knowledgebase is an exercise in frustration. My particular problem — trying to find out why I can no longer drag and drop text from an application into Skype — threw up weird answers that did not appear to be even tangentially related although there were about 20 of them. There’s no link on the bottom of the list along the lines of “can’t find what you’re looking for? Submit a ticket”; instead you need to look down the side, to the penultimate entry, for a link to doing that.

You then are taken to a page where you have to fill out a form, though first you’re steered away again:

Did you try searching our Knowledgebase browsing our user guides? If you didn’t find an answer then try pinpointing your problem below and send it to our Customer Support.

If you remain determined, you’re required to select from a list of topics, and then subtopics, before entering a subject for your query. You can’t skip this: the fields below will be grayed out until you do. I must confess I didn’t get this for a while and was getting a tad more frustrated than I should have been. The fields below are pretty straightforward, though I suspect a few people will be stumped by the field ‘Skype version’ without any help as to what that means or where to find the information. (It’s not a mandatory field, but I’m guessing the first supportresponse customers receive who don’t fill it out will be “What version of Skype are you using?”)

That’s not the end of the process. You’ll probably then get a page saying:

Your support request was not submitted as there are some possible answers in our knowledgebase, they are listed below. If your answer is not listed then please click the button at the bottom of this page.

Skype-support1How weird is that? I think most people are just going to assume their request has been sent and not read this bit. In which case they’re going to be waiting a long, long time. (Almost as long as someone successfully submitting a request, it turns out.)

What annoys me here is that the listed answers aren’t any more related to my request than the ones I tried to find earlier are. They included questions like “What types of links are available for the Skype Affiliate Program” and “What is a publisher?” I suspect these answers have very little to do with what you actually enter in your request. To confirm this I submitted another query:

I’m increasingly concerned that Skype is making me fat. Could that be the case, or have I got the settings wrong? Should I use a smaller headset?

To which I got another “not submitted” message, along with some irrelevant responses (mind you, I would have been deeply impressed if I had received something, particularly if it had been along the lines of “Sennheiser do a very a good line in svelte headsets helping even the heaviest set user appear streamlined”), none of which even mentioned headsets (Can I see list of persons whom I have authorized? etc).

To get past all this dross you need to scroll to the bottom and click on a button. Finally the support request has gone. How many steps was that? Too many. Way too many.

But that’s not the end of it. An email arrives notifying you of your request, and informing you that “Skype Paid Service and Billing-related queries will be sent usually within the next 72 hours”, whatever that means. Bug reports, comments and suggestions won’t be answered. And be warned; you may not receive an answer at all:

Not all Technical Problems will be answered if it is a known problem or if an answer is available in our Knowledgebase or you can also check our Troubleshooters for answers to common problems:>


Aside from the overlong sentence with the unparsable final clause, it sounds a tad Catch 22; if we know it’s a problem, we may not tell you. If it’s in the Knowledgebase we may not either. So good luck with that.

Sure, they’ve made VoIP easy. But as their client gets more complex, and they add more features, and they try to lure more paid users beyond the early adopters, they need to prepare for people who want assistance. Skype, for some reason, really doesn’t want to know.

Thwarting the VoIP Eavesdroppers

Interesting piece in Intelligence Online (subscription only) which mentions the growth of both software to intercept VoIP traffic, and services to thwart it. Companies mentioned: Amteus [company website] which “has developed secure software for Voice over IP (VoIP) communications but also for e-mail and file swaps.” Amteus basically works by establishing a peer to peer connection and encrypts with a one time key. On the other side of the fence, the article says, are companies “like Israeli firms Nice Systems and Verint as well as France’s Aqsacom, are already marketing solutions to break into and record telephone conversations on the Internet.” [all corporate websites]

An interesting world

The Skype Recording Thing

Still looking for the perfect tool to record Skype conversations, I looked and Google and found one of my own posts, done 20 months ago, so I’ve updated it into a list of those programs I can find for both Windows an Macs: the LOOSE wire blog: Recording Skype conversations. This is my current state of mind on the issue:

Quite a few folk have since added their suggestions, out of which I’ve cobbled together the following. I haven’t tried some of these, and to be honest, I’ve still not come across one that completely satisfies me. Problems I’ve encountered are recording latency (where two people’s words overlap with each other on the recording where they didn’t in real life), lack of tweakability of sound levels so the two voices are the same and easy ways to give the resulting files filenames.

Perhaps Tom Raftery, who still has my underpants, can shed some light.

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Staying Productive in Your Underwear

I’m researching a piece on how to cut back the amount of stuff you have to read, particularly RSS feeds. So I have spent the morning reading blogs related to the tools I’m writing about. In the process, of course, I find more than 20 new blogs that are interesting enough for me to add to the feed reader that I’m supposed to be in the process of thinning out. It’s the online equivalent of packing up all your stuff in newspaper ready to move and then sitting down and spending the whole day reading fascinating news items on scraps of year-old newspaper.

Anyway, I realise I should write more about working from home, something I’ve done (the working from home, not the writing about it) for more than five years now. Here’s a great bunch of tips from Kevin Yank, who’s based in Australia although, yes, he’s a Canadian:

He recommends maintaining your morning routine as if you’re going to the office, unplugging the TV, and, most interestingly, purging your work PC of distractions. His home PC, meanwhile, “constantly checks my personal email, downloads podcasts, fetches low-priority feeds from a plethora of distracting web sites, and is replete with cute little apps that generate eye candy and always seem to need upgrading when I should be doing something else.”

Great idea to have two computers if you can manage it. Although I’m divided on whether it’s possible to divide work and personal stuff these days. Doesn’t one feed off the other? I found myself yesterday arguing fiercely with a friend from a major U.S. bank who said she was not even able to access web-mail on her work computer. To me this is daft; limiting workers’ access to such things merely panders to lazy IT staff and undermines the chances workers will be well-informed, motivated and well-connected. Of course, as smart phones take over these kinds of connectivity roles — email, IM, VoIP, presence, RSS, blogging, photo taking and sharing — all these efforts will be worthless anyway. Then we’ll have to check our phones at the door. Or work from home.

Anyway, I like Kevin’s ideas. The more professional you make your environment, the better you will function. Now I’m off for a lie-down.

Press 4 To Give Us All Your Money

I guess it had to happen: phishers are not only trying to snag you by setting up fake banking websites, now they’re trying to snag you by setting up fake switchboards too.

Tim McElligott writes in Telephony Online that scammers “posing as a financial institution and using a VoIP phone number e-mailed people asking them to dial the number and enter the personal information needed to gain access to their finances.” Simply put, the phishers in this case aren’t directing you to a fake website where you enter your password and other data sufficient for them to empty your account; they’re directing you to an automated phone service, where you’d give the same details.

The information comes from Cloudmark (“the proven leader in messaging security solutions for service providers, enterprises and consumers”), which claims in a press release that it has seen two separate such attacks this week:

In these attacks, the target receives an email, ostensibly from their bank, telling them there is an issue with their account and to dial a number to resolve the problem. Callers are then connected over VoIP to a PBX (private branch exchange) running an IVR [an automated voice menu] system that sounds exactly like their own bank’s phone tree, directing them to specific extensions. In a VoIP phishing attack, the phone system identifies itself to the target as the financial institution and prompts them to enter account number and PIN.

As Telephony Online points out, setting up this kind of phone network is easy. “Acquiring a VoIP phone number is about as hard as acquiring an IP address or a domain name,” it quotes Adam O’Donnell, senior research scientist at Cloudmark, as saying. “Phishers figured out how to quickly and fraudulently get that information a long time ago.” An old PC with a voice modem card and with a little PBX software and you’ve got a company’s phone tree which can sound exactly like your bank, O’Donnell says.

This all makes sense. Indeed, we should have seen it coming. It’ll be interesting to see how banks cope with this. Right now their argument has been that if in doubt, a customer should phone them. That no longer is as watertight an option. They could argue that customers should not respond to any email they receive, but that’s also not always true. Banks and other financial institutions need to communicate with customers.

One solution to this is the signature: Postbank last month launched a service where all its emails to customers come with an electronic signature. The only problem with this is that most email clients don’t support the service — only Microsoft Outlook. This is a bit like giving customers a lock that only works on certain kinds of door.

Perhaps banks are just going to have to pick up the phone. If customers are now under threat from automated phone trees maybe the solution is not more technology, but less? A cost the phishers are unlikely to be able to bear would be an actual voice on the other end of the line that sounded familiar and authentic. The only question then would be for the customer to establish the authenticity of the banking assistant.

The End of VoIP?

A provocative (or is it prophetic?) piece  from The Register’s Andrew Orlowski who sees the end of Skype and VoIP:

It’s small, it’s boring and won’t turn any heads – but it probably spells the end of the road for Skype, Vonage and any other hopeful independent VoIP companies. It’s Nokia’s 6136 phone, which allows you to make calls over your home or office Wi-Fi network, as well as on a regular cellular network. UMA, or unlicensed mobile access, is the mobile operators’ answer to the threat of VoIP – and now it’s reality.

UMA, he says, has the edge because in one phone you will be able “to keep one phone number, one handset, and receive one bill at the end of every month.” In the future phone calls at home — whether you’re on your mobile, landline or online — will be free. This is a neat fit because where quality was worst — inside — you will be able to use WiFi.

Got a signal yet?

This is not good news of course, for those of us who saw the interesting lunatics taking over the asylum. Disruptive technology, it turns out, means just that it disrupts the monsters out of their slumber and they finally get it. As Orlowski concludes: “So long then VoIP, and thanks for the free calls.”


Google Talk May Not Be As Cheap As You Think

We should probably start being more careful about what we wish for. Google Talk is now offering, apparently because of public demand, histories of chats stored in your Gmail account. Useful stuff. But accessing those histories will involve seeing contextual ads next to them, as per ordinary Gmail messages.

The relevant part of the FAQ says

There are no ads in your chat sessions or your Quick Contacts list. Once a chat is saved, however, it becomes just like a Gmail message. And just as you may see relevant ads next to your Gmail messages, there now may be ads alongside your saved chats. Ads are only displayed when you’re viewing a saved chat, and as with all ads in Gmail, they are matched entirely by computers. Only ads classified as Family-Safe are shown and we are constantly improving our technologies to prevent displaying any inappropriate ads. One of the things many Gmail users have told us is how much they appreciate the unobtrusive text ads in Gmail, as opposed to the large, irrelevant, blinking banner ads they often see in other services, and many have even cited the usefulness of the ads in Gmail.

It’s a useful feature, but at some point shouldn’t we start asking ourselves whether all this stored information is not a tad dangerous, whether it’s held by Google or anyone else? Already we are a little lax about what we say when we’re emailing people, but this is nothing compared to instant messsaging. A throwaway line in chat will be stored — possibly forever — on someone else’s computer if you chat with them. Now, if you use this Gmail option, another copy will be stored on a computer you’ll never really be able to track down. (This latter element is not the case with Skype, for example, which archives the chats on your own computer.)

Here’s why. Note the changes to the Google Talk Privacy Notice. Notice, among other things, that your Google Talk “personal information” is no longer deleted after a reasonable period — although “activity information” is. Neither of these terms are laid out fully and unequivocably. Even if you do decide to delete chat histories stored in your Gmail account, “because of the way we maintain this service, such deletion may not be immediate, and residual copies may remain on backup systems media.” In other words, don’t assume those chats will ever completely disappear.

This is not just about Gmailing your chat histories. It’s about using chat itself. For a company determined not to do evil, Google is surprisingly coy about what data it stores about you. Look at these changes to the Privacy Policy for example (parentheses indicate removal since the last version of the Policy, underlined text indicates additions):

 When you use Google Talk, [[Google’s servers automatically]] we may record [[certain]] information about your [[use of the service]] usage, such as when you use Google Talk, the size of your contact list and the contacts you communicate with, and the frequency and size of data transfers. Information displayed or clicked on in the Google Talk interface (including UI elements, settings, and other information) is also recorded. [[We delete personal information from the Google Talk logs after a period of time reasonably necessary to do so. ]]

On one hand it’s great that Google shows us what has been changed, deleted or added to its policy. But then again, we’d have found out anyway. And although I want Google’s bots trawling through my half-formed thoughts on chat even less than I want them trawling through my email, this is not really about Google. It’s about us thinking hard about how we treat these tools — email, chat, even VoIP calls or webcam exchanges — when we realise that what we type (or possibly say, or show of ourselves) is going to be stored somewhere, for a long, long time. And one thing we’ve learned in the past few weeks is that ‘not being evil’ is not quite as absolute a conviction as we thought it was.


Verso Helps Block China Traffic

Verso Technologies has announced its first major deal for its Internet filtering technology — in China. Verso is best known for its high-profile promises to block Skype VoIP traffic, which have raised a few eyebrows, and very little take-up, in the U.S. and Europe. However, clearly this is exactly what the unidentified Chinese mobile carrier wants to do, according to Verso’s press release:

“The trial is representative of the significant opportunities for Verso’s products in the Chinese market, where VoIP is highly regulated and the use of Skype software has been deemed illegal,” said Yves Desmet, senior vice president, worldwide sales, Verso Technologies. “More and more countries are following China’s direction in evaluating the risks associated with the growing popularity of P2P communication such as Skype, due to intense security concerns with the use of this medium for unlawful purposes and its impact on carriers’ revenues and the bottlenecks their networks are experiencing. We believe that this is just the beginning of a tremendous opportunity for Verso.”

VoIP from non-official operators is potentially illegal in China, at least for now, and major telecom operators there have been blocking Skype with some success. But I am not sure Verso’s Desmet is correct in saying “ the use of Skype software has been deemed illegal” . I can find no reference to substantiate that. Is Verso being misleading by saying that, and using phrases such as “intense security concerns with the use of this medium for unlawful purposes” to make it sound like Skype and its ilk are a hotbed of triad and Al Qaeda activity?

More generally, when Verso talks of “security concerns” it’s talking about blocking viruses, illegal content (P2P files etc) and other unwanted nasties, as well as recently aired fears that Skype may have security holes allowing hackers to carry data anonymously. But of course in China “security” carries an extra connotation. VoIP, unlike ordinary telecommunicatons, is hard to monitor, eavesdrop and tap. Is Verso helping China to limit free speech? (No, says Verso, in a piece on Slyck by Thomas Mennecke.)

I’m not quite clear about why a mobile operator would be that interested in this technology. I suppose we’re talking about people using Skype and such like over mobile networks. Still, what is clear is that Verso sees this as the thin end of a big, lucrative wedge:

“We are seeing broad applicability for this type of solution on a global basis by the service provider community, as these potential customers look to preserve and maintain security, comply with regulations, improve their revenue opportunities and optimize their network.”

VoIP for Dial-up?

How well does Voice over Internet work for folks who rely on dial-up?

I’ve not had much luck with Skype — it comes across as crackly, jerky and fenerky (I made up the last word.) A company called NetZero is now offering a VoIP service it says works well for dial-up users:

“We believe consumers should not have to have broadband Internet access in order to enjoy the price savings and feature content of Internet phone calling,” said Mark R. Goldston, CEO of United Online, the company that owns NetZero.

While a broadband connection is still recommended for the best voice quality, NetZero claims that users with a 56k modem would be able to make calls successfully by using the company’s proprietary technology it has created to reduce echo, latency and other issues.

I haven’t tried it yet but I will do. Some folk commenting on the above BetaNews story ask what is the point of VoIP over dialup — if you’re using dialup you’ve got a phoneline already — which is easy to enough to respond to. Just because you have a phone line doesn’t mean you want to be making expensive interlocal or international calls on it.

Anyway, this is potentially good news for folk in the developing world who only have access to dial-up. I’m going to check it out. The only problem, of course, is that NetZero folks can only chat to NetZero folks unless you make a SkypeOut type call.