Revisiting Skype For Linux

Monday Jun 18th 2012 by Matt Hartley
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Is Skype still the best VoIP client for Linux now that it’s owned by Microsoft?

For many people such as myself, using Skype is a necessary evil. Those of us who work within offices that utilize Skype as their primary means of conferencing will have a very tough time convincing enterprise environments that open source alternatives are better.

I'm not saying it never happens, rather that once a means of communicating is setup, good luck adapting to something new. Sadly in some instances, this has meant relying on Skype.

For years before the Microsoft buyout of Skype, it was clear that the Skype team had little interest in pursuing updates for the Linux Skype client. The reasons why could best be left to one’s imagination. I suspect time, funding, and distribution differences all contributed to nothing happening. But to the end user, it left many of us trying to find usable alternatives.

Skype alternatives: a two-way challenge

Normally when a Linux enthusiast finds themselves facing a software challenge, they find ways to overcome it. Tweak some settings, look for an alternative application, and all other avenues are explored to get the needed software working properly. Unfortunately when it comes to software to be used on someone else's desktop, we have little control here.

Take, for example, my attempts to get Windows users to adopt to the non-Skype VoIP options, Ekiga and Jitsi. Since both applications run well on Windows, I figured this wouldn't be an issue.

Well, it seems I was wrong. Each time I've tried to get someone to run one of these applications, they bring up one undeniable fact _ who outside of hardcore Linux users actually use these apps? To run them, it would mean these users were running the applications for my sake only. The rest of their friends are on Skype.

No matter how much I want people to use the Skype alternatives, it's simply not happening outside of the Linux user space. Even worse, the applications we do have aren't that great to begin with.

Ekiga: needs commercial sponsorship

Without question one of the most frustrating Skype alternatives is known as Ekiga. Using protocols that are supportive of open standards, this little VoIP application should have been a Skype killer years ago. Despite its shortcoming of relying on dated third-party software on the OS X front, it offers useable clients for both Linux and Windows.

Unfortunately, any snow ball’s chance of mass adoption has died ever since Skype for Windows has continued adding on cool functionality like group video chat, screen-sharing and a smoother approach to dialing landlines. Even though Ekiga is able to sell credits so users can also dial out to landlines, the interface is so clunky that it's not going to win most people over. With regard to group video calls and screen-sharing, Ekiga doesn't appear to be entering this space anytime soon.

All of the negative stuff behind us, I feel very strongly that Ekiga is mature and with some cash to pay for active development, the software could easily take on Skype directly. Obviously, this means a retooling effort would be needed, perhaps taking the same approach as another cross platform VoIP application known as Jitsi. Unlike Ekiga, Jitsi will run on all three popular platforms.

Best Skype alternative: Jitsi

The very first time I tried Jitsi, I was instantly blown away at how one application was able to provide a Skype-like experience so smoothly, across all three popular platforms. The secret to this success is likely due to the Java core, along with other libraries that apparently translate well across each operating system. This was my go-to VoIP application when recommending a viable Skype alternative.

Sadly, as I mentioned previously, getting non-Linux users to care was challenging to impossible. In their minds, I should be using Skype to chat with them. What they failed to understand is that the version of Skype we had available wasn't as advanced as users had on other platforms. Skype for Linux was buggy, dated and needed to be put down for good. So this lead me into relying on Jitsi whenever possible.

Up until Ubuntu 11.10, Jitsi worked flawlessly. Even my HD webcam provided the crystal clear picture one would expect from a top-tier VoIP client. Now I should point out that as great as Jitsi is, it doesn't do everything that Skype for Windows can. The most notable missing feature missing was the multiple-person video conferencing. Nothing on the desktop for Linux, to my knowledge, offers this functionality.

But Jitsi does a great job with one-on-one video conferencing, desktop sharing, desktop streaming, file sharing, as well as support for countless networks/protocols. And like Skype and Ekiga, Jitsi also has the capability of calling POTS (plain old telephone service) phones when setup properly.

The downside of using Jitsi these days is that its performance on some distributions, such as Ubuntu 12.04, has been less than awesome. The biggest issue being that Jitsi runs slowly or in my case, not at all.

Despite these hurdles, my gut tells me that any viable alternative to Skype is going to come from the Jitsi camp. They have the corporate sponsorship and community support to pull it off. And it's a fairly active project. However, until they get everything completely ironed out, that leaves us with Skype.

Skype 4.0

As much as it pains me to say it, I still run Skype on my main PC. Going even deeper than that, I also updated the Linux Skype client to the latest 4.0, released by Microsoft.

Yes, despite my rant as to how I thought Microsoft would treat Skype for Linux, Microsoft made me eat my own skeptical words. They not only didn't kill off the Linux Skype client, they also updated it with some minor bug fixes and a bit of a UI makeover as well. Sadly, though, Microsoft hasn't yet offered the same group video conferencing functionality that is found on the Windows Skype client.

Now I've had plenty of opportunity to play with the new Skype 4.0 release and I have to be honest, I haven't noticed any changes. Outside of the obvious user interface improvements, the release itself was kind of a let down. While I was thrilled to see that my ability to video chat with friends is still being supported without using a web browser (such as Gmail Video Chat), I was hoping to see some new features included.

In addition to the lack of group video calling, I was disappointed to see Skype's 64-bit Linux support for Ubuntu was a bit spotty. Not that IÅfm complaining, however it seems that integration into the top panel for Ubuntu users is limited to 32-bit users only.

This means I have to lock in my Skype client to the launcher, should I wish to leave it available when it's not in use. Another interesting thing I noticed is that Skype is now suggesting that we use PulseAudio Control. It's a suggestion I agree with, as Ubuntu sound settings are useless if you run a USB headset along side of a standard sound card.

With the standard Ubuntu sound settings, even setting the input to the USB headset is meaningless with any VoIP software, as the application still goes straight to the installed sound card instead. PulseAudio Control simply works more reliability.

That’s not an opinion, rather a fact that IÅfve confirmed release after release of Ubuntu since Pulse Audio was introduced. This affects Ekiga and Jitsi as well, not just Skype. It's a flaw in the Ubuntu sound manager _ its controls for toggling application-specific input controls offer a volume slider only.

And the winner is....

I am gritting my teeth with each keystroke, however the fact remains that Skype easily wins this round for desktop installed VoIP clients. They have the user adoption across the various platforms, basic feature set we need, and now it seems that updates are finally being taken more seriously.

A year from now, my findings may shift. Should Microsoft start serving advertisements or Google finally gets off their butt and releases Gtalk w/video for Linux users, I may finally be able to point to a viable alternative.

As much as Jitsi, among other soft-phones warm my heart, the sad fact is that they're still in beta. Skype, as of this month, has finally graduated to something ready for the mainstream on the Linux desktop.

Let's hope Google is waking up from their slumber and is ready to stop forcing us to use our email clients to have video conversations. Because unless Jitsi gains huge mainstream market awareness, Google is the best competition to Microsoft in the VoIP/video chat space right now.

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