The headline in the Technology Guardian supplement read “Skype’s nightmare weekend highlights peer-to-peer fears” two year’s ago back on 23 August 2007. The article described how “Skype’s popular internet telephone service went down on August 16 and was unavailable for between two and three days“.

I remember this incident as, with people’s attention focussed on the loss of this service (fortunately at a non-critical time in the academic year) our University IT Service department took the opportunity to remind the Skype users on campus (which included me) that Skype was a proprietary application. The recommended VoIP application, which was about to be deployed for the start of the academic year, was the FreeWire phone service. This, I was told, was recommended as it was based on open standards. This sounded interesting, especially if it provided the application independence which Skype lacks. So I looked at the FreeWire Web site and found that “It’s only when you call non-Freewire phones that you have to pay“. So it’s based on open standards, but you have to pay if you try to call a user who isn’t running the same software as you. It’s no different from Skype, it would seem – except, perhaps, that as I speak there are almost 17 million Skype users online. In comparison the standards-based FreeWire service services a niche market (and perhaps a satisfied niche market as, here at Bath University several student residences now have Voice-over-IP telephones in the bedrooms).

But the promise of VoIP telephony services seems further away than it did two years ago (and the access problems Skype suffered from were due to a bug triggered by large numbers of automated Microsoft Windows updates – a bug now fixed). I now have Skype clients on my office PC and my laptop (both running MS Windows), my Asus EEE netbook PC (running generic antibiotics Linux), my iPod Touch and my HTC Magic Android. A proprietary application running on four different platforms seems pretty good!

So what’s the future for VoIP telephony services? Yesterday the BBC News announced “eBay reaches deal to sell Skype“. The article states that “Online auction site eBay has agreed to sell the majority of internet phone company Skype for about $2bn (£1.2bn)” and goes on to explain that the deal values Skype at $2.75bn, a slight increase on the $2.6bn it paid for the company in 2005.

Attempts by JANET to deploy a standards-based VoIP service (called JANET Talk) for the UK’s higher/further education community were abandoned a few months ago because, as described in JANET News (PDF format): “The results from both trial feedback and market research showed that the appetite for a service like JANET Talk had diminished. The reasons cited include a preference for alternative solutions that are now available from the commercial sector. These solutions were deemed easier to use, reliable and free.

Sometimes standards-based solutions don’t take off, it would seem, even when there are JISC-funded initiatives encouraging the take-up of such solutions. And as Nick Skelton suggested in a post entitled “Why did JANET Talk fail?” perhaps this is due to a failure to appreciate the importance of the network effect. Nick concluded:

When planning a new service, see if it has built-in positive network effects. It is doesn’t have these naturally, find a way to connect it to larger networks so it can benefit from theirs. If you can’t find a way to do this then you are dooming your project from the start. You’re better off doing nothing, unless you want to see your service become irrelevant, pushed to one side by a larger, more popular one.

I agree.