News and commentary about the Great Frontiers

ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) --- This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Anvil tops of thunderclouds are also visible. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Image Credit: ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) – Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Skype is the Limit


In a little over a year Skype has gone from hype to 29 million registered users. SkypeIn (where people can call your computer using their regular phone) has 1 million paying users. It is no wonder that traditional telecommunications companies who recently dismissed Skype have become silent on the subject. Skype is heading to cell phones, which are now just hand-held computers as powerful as laptop computers were in the year 2000, allowing calls to take place over Wi-Fi connections to the Internet rather than via cellular networks. Companies are increasingly turning to VoIP (and Skype) for their internal telephone needs.

Beyond the technological advances are new social phenomena emerging as Skype grows in popularity. People are contacting strangers using Skype to ask for help in practicing their foreign language skills. New dating and networking services are making use of the Skype backbone.

All of this is an example of convergence (various hardware, software, and service platforms merging) but if that were the only process at work, then Skype would be nothing more than “Telephone Version 2.0.” It is the unexpected application of new technology that says more about rapid progress and change in our time than expected uses.

Because the software is free, Skype is fast becoming an API that can be used by other software. Think of it this way: the graphical user interface (GUI) was an important advance in software during the 1980s, but now we take it for granted as more advanced GUI are standard in most modern operating systems. Right now Skype is one of the hot new products making the news, but eventually VoIP technology will be just one component in much more advanced products and services.

Technical wizards are leading the way. A new service call “Skypecasting” is merging Skype with the power of podcasts via recording software to redefine radio. This, of course, creates another problem for traditional music companies (as it will for the movie industry since Skype or a similar program will eventually allow video conferencing as well). This new use for Skype is further proof that technology is rapidly outpacing our ability to deal with it. Just when the Supreme Court is hearing a case that some believe will determine the future of peer-to-peer networking technology, along comes a new technology that will only exacerbate the issue, and perhaps put it beyond the reach of the Court’s eventual ruling.

Trying to keep up with these rapid technological and social changes is a lost cause, but perhaps describing some of the emergent patterns can be beneficial. It may also be useful to adopt a new mind set based on an understanding of these patterns. Most people do not really pay attention to such things, and they adjust when necessary, but can we continue to be reactive? “Skype is only software” some might argue, but this is an arguement they will not be able to make for long. Much more profound changes are on the horizon, changes that will soon result in paradigm shifts that no one can deny, on time scales measured in weeks and days or less.

How are you dealing with all these changes?

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