Skype can’t quite kick it with the big players


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I was wondering why my Skype client wasn’t logging in properly yesterday. Curiously, I thought it was my internet connection and didn’t give it much more thought. I restarted the client once or twice but it just wouldn’t log on.

It wasn’t until this morning that I caught the story in the software issue story in the IHT that I realised it was a bigger problem:

Many Skype users from Europe to Latin America were not able to use the popular program to make long-distance calls using their computers Thursday because of a software problem, the company said.

It’s unusual to experience such a service problem — and, for those of us who are dialtone intolerant (that is, we simply can’t stand not getting a connection) — it’s not good news at all.

Many people I know exclusively depend on Skype for their business communications. They can’t just take today off. Instead they’ll have to revert to their mobile phones and landlines… which is not a nice thing to have to do. Not when this burgeoning industry is trying to persade people to move away from ‘old’ communications systems.

And not when you’re paying for it.

When it’s free, who cares. It’s annoying, right? But fundamentally, it’s free, so you just find an alternative. You pick up the phone.

But when you’re paying 20, 30 or 40 quid a month to a Skype and they can’t provide — EVEN for just a few hours — the reality strikes home. What’s the point?

It just ain’t good enough.

You’ve just demonstrated to me WHY I have to keep my landline and why I HAVE to pay extra for my ‘international calling option’ from my bloated multinational telecoms conglomerate.

I demand five nines, as they say in the business. That is, 99.999% up time.

I’ve got considerable experience on the periphery of always-on, high availability systems, particularly since my dad has more or less spent his working career supervising the technology infrastructure for financial institutions. I was the kid sat playing on the data centre floor (only once or twice, just in case mum’s reading) when I joined dad at work on a Saturday. It was there that I learned just how much work is required to keep financial systems working. I knew it was important because we almost never got home on time and we’d end up going to McDonalds as compensation. Good news.

But with financial systems, you simply can’t afford downtime. They’re carrier grade. Or better-than. Because one screw up and your company is spunking a billion quids worth of trades up the wall each hour — no exaggeration.

It’s the same at British Telecom, Cable & Wireless, Vodafone, 3UK, T-Mobile… whatever your perspective on the service level of these organisations, their systems work. You might encounter the odd arse and you might experience individualised issues. But they have bright people, smart processes and shitloads of expensive, reliable, thrice redundant technology. All there to make sure when I pick up my handset, I get a dialtone. Every day. Every minute. Every second. That’s what we all pay for. Once in a decade, you allow for the odd 6-hour screw up. But a complete national network failure from BT? God no. It’d be unthinkable. Vodafone switched off for 24 hours? Never. You get the odd area problems. But these companies just can’t take any sort of proper downtime. Their investors can’t tolerate anything like that.

Can you imagine if T-Mobile’s entire European network was down for 24 hours? Can you *imagine* what sort of outcome that would have? They’ve all invested to make sure that never, ever, happens. Or if it does, it’s isolated to small geographic pockets.

Skype is not a crappy little internet player that’s been crippled by it’s own success. Or, well… is it?

How shit do you have to be to allow this to happen?

Who’s the chap or lady in charge of technology infrastructure in Skype and what are his/her credentials?

To the Skype team in charge of Infrastructure, I say this:

1. You’re charging people money. You need to really, really get real.
2. Every single one of your users affected is now (sub)consciously thinking about their ALTERNATIVE communications options and, WORSE, using them.
3. Downtime is unacceptable for any paid service. It’s beyond unacceptable. It just doesn’t happen. Especially, if, as one of my friends commented this morning, ‘I thought it was meant to be peer to peer so it didn’t screw up?’
4. Telling me on your heartbeat system that ‘SkypeIn is working normally’ is a bit rich. That’s a bit desperate-IT-manager. It isn’t working normally. My calls are going to VOICEMAIL. That’s almost helpful. Bordering on useful but sadly falling short.

Right now, can everyone who’s trying to call me on my sodding useless Skype number, please NOT. Because it won’t work. So now I look like a total arse for choosing a communications provider who can’t communicate.

It ain’t temporal. It’s not ‘alright’ if you bring it back online in 2 hours. The fact is, I’m looking like an idiot right now. Not in 2 hours.

Kudos to the Skype team for delivering regular updates on their heartbeatb blog.

I’ve taken a cool, direct look at Skype this morning. I’ve weighed it’s service, I’ve measured it carefully, and I’ve found it wanting. I was wondering if, perhaps, this criticism is unfounded. If I’m being too hard, if I’m getting carried away.

But each time I sit back and look, I think no. No. This is supposedly one of the world’s largest communications providers with over 200 million users worldwide. It is not an internet start-up. It’s supposedly extremely well funded. It’s owned by one of the largest companies in the world who are very, very experienced with always-on systems (remember the eBay screw up a few years back?).

Deary me!

  • http://www.smstextnews.com Alex

    It’s still down now.. so been, what, 24 hours so far?

  • http://www.commverge.co.uk Steve Curtis

    Hey Ewan,

    I can agree with giving Skype some grief. But please don’t tarnish us all with the same brush!

    The VoIP system we offer has been designed from the start for business users. To be fair to Skype, they are not a business service – and have never tried to replace your telephone – just compliment it. Trouble is, so many people equate VoIP = Skype = Business VoIP Service. It gets used for business critical functions and then we all suffer when it goes wrong.

    Here’s hoping they fix their problems soon…

  • Ewan

    Steve, you’re absolutely right. Let me update the article accordingly, I was criticising Skype, not VOIP.

  • Krystal

    I was confused too, until I thought “Hmm, maybe I need to download a newer version or someting” and went to their website and saw their apologetic letter. Well, it’s free so I can’t complain ;)

  • Jay Fenton

    “But with financial systems, you simply can’t afford downtime. They’re carrier grade. Or better-than. Because one screw up and your company is spunking a billion quids worth of trades up the wall each hour — no exaggeration.”

    Classic.

  • sippedoutyoda

    That was Skype…

    Now is the time for Damaka (www.damaka.com)

    Pure SIP based P2P application that encrypts signaling and media end to end so, all your conversations are fully secured end to end.

    It does encrypted video conference, audio conference, video mail, whiteboarding, audio streaming, desktop sharing, SMS, voice mail, IM chat, video profile, dial in, dial out, free pc-to-pc (audio & video) calling anywhere in the world, cheap pc to phone, phone to phone, secure file transfer, application sharing, even mobile (pocket pc and smart phones) all this is done end to end securely without using any kind of servers in the middle.

    Check ‘em out at http://www.damaka.com/consumers/

  • http://www.truphone.com James Body

    It is an ill wind that does nobody any good – signups at Truphone have increased about fivefold over the past 24 hours!

    Robust VoIP and SMS on mass market mobile phones – http://www.truphone.com

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