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August 22, 2006

VoIP heads for free with Jajah and Hullo

The number of VoIP services continues to increase rapidly and the prices are spiralling down to free. Michael Arrington at TechCrunch has the latest:

The VOIP wars are already crowded with more competitors than can possibly build a business. Well capitalized players like Vonage and Skype battle with nimble startups like Gizmo and Jajah in a race for relevance. All have their own twists on the idea of cheap or free calls using the internet. The most recent entrant, Hullo, is a worthy addition to the crowd. Hullo is most like Jajah, with a few notable differences.

Jajah allows easy phone-to-phone calls from their website. It has a somewhat complicated pricing structure, but the important thing to know is that it is free or damn close to free for most calls in the US and Europe. To make a call, you type in your phone number and the phone number you are calling. A moment later your phone rings. Pick it up and the person you are calling is ringing on the other end. From that point on it’s a normal phone call. Jajah generally requires you to initiate calls from their website, although they do have an Outlook plugin, firefox extension and Mac address book plugin as well to ease the process of calling. Simple, straightforward, cheap.

Hullo is a little different. The actual process of having a call is the same as Jajah – first your phone rings, then the person calling you. But as Alec Saunders notes in his review, it does a lot more, too.

First of all, it’s impossible to spend money on the service, at least for now. Everything is free.

That part sounds good as do the features described in the rest of the article and in the Alec Sunders review linked above. I especially like the conference calling capability, but here’s a quote from Saunders about the real bottom line:

Best of all, all North American calls are free, whether you make them on the softclient, or on a handset, and whether you make them to another hullo member, or to a non-member. When compared to Skype, this means you can make a free call from any handset as well as a PC. And when compared to Gizmo, you can make a free call to anybody, not just another Gizmo member. This up’s the ante significantly in the price spat Skype and Gizmo started.

The company is focusing their launch on the college and high school crowd. The features have been designed recognizing that young people are increasingly the most sophisticated users of mobile phones. hullo’s feature set makes it easy to use those phones to socialize, arrange events, or stay in touch with friends and family who might live in different cities. It’s not hard to imagine how appealing this will be for students away from home for the first time.

And appealing to everyone else too. I wonder how long it can stay free?

Posted at 4:31 pm. Filed under Bargains, Companies, Freebies, Gizmo, Hullo, Internet, Jajah, Skype, VoIP, Vonage

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March 30, 2006

A hidden downside to using Skype

Bruno Giussani has an interesting post at his blog, that also appeared in Wall Street Journal Europe, which reveals a little known downside to using Skype for VoIP telephone service. It turns out that Skype is actually a peer-to-peer application and under certain circumstances, your PC may get turned into a “supernode” spewing a ton of Internet traffic on behalf of Skype.

Consider this text from CERN’s Web site: “Skype [peer-to-peer] telephony software is not permitted on CERN’s computing or network facilities. It violates CERN’s Computing Rules by bypassing firewall protections and offering services to others.”

The issues are a bit complex. Let’s try to break them down.

First, the “supernode” question. “Skype can turn user computers into ‘supernodes’ which route traffic through CERN,” François Grey of CERN’s IT communications team explained in an email exchange: “We have encountered some operational problems as a result.” That’s because Skype’s design is based on peer-to-peer, distributed networking principles. This means that the core functions of the system are decentralized, as is the database of Skype users (the tool that lets you look up other Sykpers and tells the system where to forward a call). The calls are set up and passed on among users, flowing through a chain of computers around the world without traversing any central infrastructure.

That’s good for robustness and scalability — and for Skype, which can avoid massive investments and add new users at near-zero marginal cost. For the system to work, however, some users have to take over its vital functions: routing traffic and holding portions of the database. In Skypeville, these tasks are farmed out to those users with the most powerful computers and the biggest bandwidth, such as CERN. Skype turns them into supernodes.

Only a fraction of users are elevated to this function–currently some 20,000, according to research presented at a recent conference in the Netherlands by Philippe Biondi and Fabrice Desclaux of EADS. And only a small portion of their bandwidth is supposed to be shared. Skype CEO Niklas Zennström explained it to me in an interview last year: “When you become a supernode you share some of your resources and a little bit of bandwidth, but very little; you won’t notice.”

That’s the idea at least, but it doesn’t always work out that way:

But some do notice. San Diego-based venture capitalist and TV host Paul Kedrosky, for example, complained on his blog in January that while he was traveling his computer “was sending out enormous amounts of traffic.” The IT people at his firm discovered that the machine was routing Skype traffic as a supernode. Computerworld magazine found that “in supernode mode, Skype is reputedly able to saturate 100 Mbit/second connections.” In layman’s terms, those are fast connections. The average Skype user’s PC is much less taxed than this, obviously. The possibility of becoming a supernode is written into Skype’s end-user license agreement, but not explicitly: The word “supernode” is never used. The license speaks of “permission to utilize the processor and bandwidth of your computer for the limited purpose of facilitating the communication between Skype Software users.”

The criteria for a subscriber PC to be chosen for use as a “supernode” aren’t really clear although the Computerworld article linked above suggests that if your machine has a high speed Internet connection and a routeable IP address (e. g. not behind the average home router with Network Address Translation (NAT)), you are a good candidate.

There’s much more by following the link including worries about security and legal regulations that might require Skype users to store any traffic routed through their machines. Nicholas Carr notes how using customer machines to provide infrastructure seems to be critical to Skype’s business model and that there it is no such thing as a free ride. I’m wondering about the multitudes of other VoIP services and how many of them are really P2P applications too?

Posted at 10:53 am. Filed under Companies, Internet, P2P, Skype, VoIP

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January 3, 2006

Skype partners roll out the hardware at CES

The International Consumer Electronics Show starts Thursday, but to get ahead of the cloud of press releases some vendors have “launched” early and Skype is no exception. Their big news isn’t with Skype’s base VoIP service, but with the hardware partners they have signed up – Alliances with Creative, D-Link, IPEVO, Kodak, Netgear, Panasonic, and VTech Illustrate Skype Market Leadership.

The emphasis seems to be mostly on integrating Skype with normal phone equipment:

VTech USB7100 Phone – availability of the previously announced VTech USB phone, expandable with up to four handsets and allows users to view their online contacts. It’s dual line for both Skype and regular telephone service and has cordless handsets.

D-Link Skype USB Phone Adapter (DPH-50U) – a Skype phone adapter that enables the use of Skype on a traditional phone.

The D-Link Skype USB phone adapter (DPH-50U) lets users accept both regular telephone and Skype calls from the same phone for added flexibility. When consumers are talking on a traditional telephone line and receive an incoming Skype call, they can easily switch lines to take the Skype call or vice versa, just like a typical call-waiting feature.

Conference calls can also be connected between ordinary telephone lines and Skype. For added convenience, the D-Link Skype USB phone adapter includes a lighted display to indicate whether an incoming call is from a traditional telephone or from a Skype user.

Panasonic – a cordless telephone product that interfaces directly with Skype, allowing users to make and receive Skype calls and traditional calls using the same device

As its initial offering, Panasonic plans to launch a Skype compatible cordless telephone product that will enable select Panasonic cordless telephones to interface directly with Skype. With the new product, consumers will be able to make and receive Skype and traditional calls using the same Panasonic cordless phone.

There are also the more usual Skype phones:

Creative Skype Internet PhonePLUS – a standalone phone that enables anyone to make free Skype calls over the Internet without a PC connection. (That’s all the details so far.)

IPEVO Fly-1 Cordless Handset and Xing Speakerphone – PC and Mac compatible IPEVO Fly-1 cordless Skype USB handset and an IPEVO Xing Skype USB speakerphone.

FLY.1 is a USB cordless handset with a speakerphone that works exclusively with Skype. It is designed to integrate the Skype experience with the operational familiarity of a telephone. The cordless handset offers portability and enables communication using Skype away from the user’s PC or Macintosh through a wireless USB dock.

The Xing USB speakerphone is the first device from IPEVO designed for business teleconferencing using Skype. The cross-shaped device is designed to sit atop a desk or boardroom table allowing for multi-user participation through four separate speakers. The device is not restricted by a phone jack, allowing for increased mobility and user convenience.

And some items that are hard to categorize:

NETGEAR – a new communications device to be unveiled at CES on Wednesday, January 4th and no details have been revealed.

KODAK Photo Voice – a beta version of the first Skype certified online photo sharing service.

Eastman Kodak Company and Skype™, the global Internet communications company, announce the availability of the latest innovation in digital storytelling ― KODAK Photo Voice ― that combines live voice and online photo sharing. The beta version of KODAK Photo Voice, the first Skype certified online photo sharing experience, is now available as a free download at

“Today’s families and social networks are scattered around the globe. Staying connected through photo sharing remains an important element in maintaining closer personal relationships,” said Sandra Morris, general manager of Consumer Imaging Services at Kodak. “Traditional social gatherings that once took place around the radio, television or telephone are now happening around the computer, mobile phone or camera. KODAK Photo Voice marks the next step in this evolution.”

KODAK Photo Voice is a brand new way to relive memories, empowering two people to simultaneously view a customized slideshow, and to reminisce and react to each picture. Imagine if Grandma could see pictures from her grandson’s first day at school while he narrates every moment of the experience over Skype. Perhaps an old roommate could share detailed photos and recount stories of his new life in London, as his friend back home in California reacts to each picture.

Sorry, but this last one seems like a solution in search of a problem, but it is free.

Update 1/04: They had some trouble with the demo, but Netgear announced a Skype WiFi phone:

The NETGEAR WiFi phone will make mobile Internet telephony a reality for Skype users. Unlike other devices that must connect with a PC, NETGEAR’s Skype WiFi phone will work wherever a consumer is connected to a wireless Internet access point — be that in a home, office, cafe, open public hotspot, or any open municipal wireless access point being deployed worldwide.

The NETGEAR phone is pre-loaded with Skype’s software, ready out-of-the-box to use with a wireless network. All a user needs to do after turning on the phone is enter a Skype username and password. The Skype software pulls up the user’s full contact list, displays the connection status on the phone screen, and allows the consumer to connect to any other Skype user for free. The phone will also allow users to connect to non-Skype users with the SkypeOut™ feature. More information on NETGEAR’s Skype WiFi phone, including pricing and availability, is planned for the first quarter of 2006.

In addition to the Skype Wifi phone, NETGEAR and Skype also announced that the NETGEAR RangeMax Wireless Router (WPN824) with Smart MIMO technology, a 2006 CES Innovations Design and Engineering Award honoree and the industry’s #1 selling MIMO-G product, will be equipped to optimize Skype.

The phone seems similar to the Accton Skype phone and the UTStarcom Vonage phone I’ve mentioned previously.

Posted at 7:44 pm. Filed under Companies, Creative, D-Link, Internet, IPEVO, Kodak, MIMO, Netgear, Panasonic, Skype, VoIP, Vonage, VTech, Wi-Fi

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