Does Microsoft's Skype Purchase Hurt the Linux Desktop?

Monday May 16th 2011 by Matt Hartley
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What if Microsoft were to no longer maintain the Linux version of Skype?

Over the past week Linux users have expressed deep concern over Microsoft's acquisition of Skype. This concern is understandable, since Skype is widely used on all three popular computing platforms.

But rather than dwell on what we can't control, I'll instead look at what might be an opening for Skype alternatives should Microsoft pull the plug on the Linux version of the software.

Ekiga as a Skype alternative

Based on the quality of the application and the fact that it's available for more than one platform, Ekiga seems like a likely candidate to replace Skype for the masses.

Unfortunately it's only available for Windows and Linux. Even worse, Windows users are generally unaware of Ekiga existence at all -- much less as a Skype alternative. Why? Because of Skype's heavy branding bundled with their cross-platform adoption, which is something that is missing with most Skype alternatives thus far.

In order for Ekiga to even matter in the grand scheme of things, it needs to get itself out there into the world on more than just the Linux desktop. Sadly, while it does have "some" Windows users, there isn't an OS X alternative that's ready to go. This creates a problem with fragmentation as the OS X user must then find another application that is SIP compatible and able to connect with Ekiga users.

This can be problematic at best. Not because Ekiga-compatible SIP clients aren't available for OS X, rather that no one outside of the "geeky circle of users" even knows what an Ekiga compatible client would be or where to find one. With Skype, on the other hand, it's already well-known and familiar to most people.

Google Chat as a Skype alternative

Another solution that I've pondered lately is how Google Chat offered in Gmail might work in place of Skype. Google Chat also allows me to make traditional phone calls like Skype. As an added bonus, you're able to have video chat sessions with it as well.

Unfortunately, the obvious downside to this is that you must have Gmail open in a browser. That's right, there still isn't a Gtalk application for Linux users. So you will be relying on your web browser being open to place and receive calls over Google Chat.

One possible work-a-round is using a technique noted on Lifehacker with Mozilla's Prism. While it's easy to set up, it fails in the video chat department. The URL used in the Gtalk gadget for the Prism install is for text and voice only.

So the only way to experience video chat on the Linux desktop using Google Chat is via your Web browser. Sadly, this isn't going to be a practical Skype replacement. And that failure from Google brings Skype right back to the forefront of the consumer level VoIP software.

What Skype alternatives can we use in the future?

There are a lot of soft-phones, instant messenger clients and so forth that offer much of what Ekiga does. And some of them are actually pretty good, too. But like most things, consistency between platforms is "all over the map."

The one glimmer of hope that I've found also happens to be an open source project called Jitsi. While it's still under heavy development and is definitely considered beta software, Jitsi looks like it could be a very slick hybrid of an instant messenger and SIP/VoIP client. This would make Jitsi an option that can meet the needs of the casual user. The software is simple, user-friendly, and provides the best user interface, hands down, over other options.

The biggest downside to using Jitsi that I found is that it's just not ready for prime-time use yet. In other words, you may be waiting quite awhile before wanting to suggest this software as an alternative to Skype.

Even then, Jitsi lacks the features found with the already mature Ekiga application. What we really need to have happen is to see development of Ekiga for OS X. If not, VoIP could lose ground and leave many Linux users feeling disconnected with their Windows and OS X friends. And it's this interpersonal disconnect, that I believe gives Microsoft even more control over the market than they already have.

The devil is in the details

By now I think that most users realize that Skype for Linux is "icing on the cake" for Microsoft. Their interest in Skype likely goes deeper into other things such as their work with Nokia and potentially other partners as well.

But when you flashback to 2009 and realize that at one point Skype was to be an open source option, that suggests why Microsoft decided to jump on the Skype deal. Apparently they wanted to make sure that this technology would never be an open source offering. Yes, it wasn't so much a matter of a Linux app that had Microsoft's concern. It was the idea of a freely available Skype that everyone would have a hand in controlling that kept the Redmond software giant up at night.

Like most things Microsoft, this is a matter of being able to leverage something for all its worth. Skype is no different from any other acquisition that has since become part of their greater company portfolio. This an opportunity to further Microsoft's patent roster. They made forays into the market with Web search, why not see how it goes with VoIP?

For Microsoft, voice and video communication solutions is an area in which Google doesn’t already have a dominant lead. Bundle this with the benefit of adding Skype to their enterprise offerings, and I can see why Microsoft decided to drop an awesome sum on this communications technology.

Regardless of how all of this plays out, at least we've seen evidence that Skype's new direction won't really have much effect on the destiny of the Linux desktop.

Missing Skype won't stop desktop Linux

As big of a pain as Skype's failure to develop at a reasonable pace has been, it hasn't affected Linux adoption at all. Despite Microsoft's belief that Skype is a "win" for them, the truth is that existing VoIP solutions for the enterprise already fill needs for today's business community. As for home users, we're already using mobile phones. Skype really matters very little to anyone, with the exception of video chat. It's becoming increasingly clear that the only thing that really adds value to Skype at all is video chat and Google has already made significant inroads there.

If Google could hurry up and release a native Linux version of Gtalk with video chat, concerns over the future of Skype for Linux will disappear almost overnight. But until this happens, we'll be left with a mixed bag of Ekiga, various chat clients and of course, Google Chat via Gmail. Far from a clean-cut sort of solution, but it's still better than nothing for the time being.

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