When I got the idea of writing about why Skype should be considered “evil/closed” and alternatives to Skype (mostly SIP) should be considered “good/open,” I thought, “Well, duh, easy enough.” This scenario, though, is not so black and white.
Skype – the juggernaut. Your mom knows about and probably uses Skype. Its SoftPhone software is available for all systems, easy to set up, has a great, easy to “wrap your head around” interface. Its hardware is found around the corner at your local electronics store, and normally, this hardware plugs in and after a fairly simple software install or user log-in, you are done and talking.
SIP – the underdog. You mom thinks “SIP” is something you do with an Appletini. Its SoftPhone software is also available for all systems. Some are easy to set up. Some are not. You get to “wrap your head around” a SIP phone address of something like “email@example.com.” Its hardware is not found around the corner, but in the esoteric corners of the Internet. You spend hours or longer trying to tweak your configuration, using Google to you find out why the phone keeps making the “fast busy signal” noise.
Now, side by side, when working, the is no huge difference between the two. This is phone stuff. You have conversations on them with people who are more than 30 feet away. They work as phones have been since Edison said “Watson, get me a beer.” But, and this is my interpretation of the landscape, the goals of SIP and Skype are different, but to the end user the ends are the same.
Skype is closed, encrypted, patented and even obfuscates the code running on your system so it cannot be easily reverse engineered (Link to Blackhat Conference PDF). Skype also depends on its users unknowingly creating ad-hoc networks of machines directly connected and, in some cases, relaying conversations between other users. Right now if you auto-run Skype on a Windows box and you have the right networking ports open on your Internet connection, you may be helping Mommy Martha in Connecticut talk to her son, Stubby, at the Art Institute in Chicago. Aren’t you generous.
SIP, which uses open standards, is embraced by the geek/I.T. world, as a way to get around the exorbitant fees of phone providers. It can be used by the individual at home, or scales to the enterprise by using open or proprietary solutions, of which there are many. Though there is a P2P capability in SIP where you can call an IP address directly, bypassing a central “switch,” most of the time you are using this central switch, which may require your call to go through more hops to get to the destination. But in the end, you probably will not notice.
Skype’s goal has been to not just connect people, but deliver full spectrum audio quality. In version 3.0 and on of Skype, users have noticed a marked increase in bandwidth usage. Far be it for me to speak on Skype’s behalf, but the obvious reason for the increase in bandwidth usage is most likely a decision to yet increase audio quality (or, possibly, maybe, incorporate heavier encryption).
SIP, which can sound excellent depending on codec and quantity of bandwidth used, is more focused on connection and negotiation so you can HAVE the conversation, not necessarily hearing the full timbre of Martha’s voice, just like all the other phones we use today. Encryption is optional for the paranoid.
Which one is for you? Obviously, you pick the one based on which one you are most comfortable with, how far you want to take it, how much you want to spend and, not to mention, if you are geeky, like me, which one stands up to your “technical morality.” The equipment for both are fairly cheap and getting cheaper. All Skype specific equipment has a “Skype Tax” on it and can only be used with, you guessed it, Skype. SIP equipment has no such levy, and if you decided your, normally free, SIP provider stinks, you can take your ball, and equipment, and go with somebody else.
As I said, in the end, it is about conversation. They also both do I.M., transfer files and video chat. Video Chat? Who really wants to see me with matted hair at 8:00 A.M. before my first cup of coffee? I don’t. I know. I have mirrors.