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Brian Livingston  
Beware Skype's Hype
By Brian Livingston

Wouldn't it be great if vendors always got their standards together before shipping products? Sometimes this happens; sometimes it doesn't. When it does, as with USB 1.0 and 2.0, adoption is rapid. You can hardly buy a PC or laptop these days without finding a couple of USB ports.

When it doesn't, it can create a slow-motion train wreck that we can watch but can't prevent.

Take the case of rewritable DVDs. With their multigigabyte capacities, they can be a handy storage alternative. But contention over DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD-RAM and more has delayed mass adoption by individual users and enterprises alike.

Today, the technology that most suffers from this problem—and is already careening off the tracks—is voice over IP. VOIP promises to revolutionize the way we make phone calls. Ultimately, no one will use wired, land-line phones. New mobile phones will use VOIP over corporate or home Wi-Fi connections when in range and seamlessly switch to slower cellular- type networks everywhere else. (VOIP is such a terrible acronym that henceforth I'll call it "Internet calling.")

Internet calling has been possible for years, but only the latest technologies deliver good quality. Compatibility fell into place through the efforts of the Internet Engineering Task Force and its adoption in June 2002 of a detailed standard, Session Initiation Protocol, which allows the integration of Internet calling with Web services, digital video, instant messaging and e-mail. As a result, everything from Microsoft's Windows XP to its Live Communications Server 2003 to IBM's Lotus Instant Messenger supports SIP.

This harmonious bubble was burst 13 weeks ago by a new, free, peer-to-peer Internet calling program. Skype, a made-up name that rhymes with hype, is the creation of the same two young Scandinavian entrepreneurs, Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, who in 2001 released Kazaa, another P2P program that's now a much bigger music-and-file-sharing network than Napster ever was.

People who download the software—perhaps onto your company's network—can make free Internet calls to any other Skype user in the world. Although corporate firewalls often block this kind of traffic, Skype's makers built in clever technical workarounds that they say allow their packets to pass right through.

But Skype isn't compatible with SIP. You could wake up one day to a nightmare in which some of your offices have adopted SIP while others have downloaded Skype. Users couldn't rely on the incompatible services to call one another.

Worse, having unmanaged voice packets zipping through your firewall poses the risk that a malicious hacker could some day find a buffer overrun or other flaw that can exploit Skype software.

Steve Johnson, president of Ingate Systems, which makes SIP-capable firewalls and network appliances, says SIP should be respected. "We believe that having industry standards is the way to go with new technologies," Johnson said. "Skype has many limitations. You can make a point-to-point call between two people who've downloaded the software, but you can't make conference calls and other things that are important for business."

In response, Skype's co-founders told me in a joint e-mail, "We believe in interoperability, we are looking into it, and we are open to discussion with other companies."

Skype's home page states, "Works through all firewalls," but this isn't true. Skype cannot connect through proxies, authenticating firewalls or firewalls that manage outgoing UDP packets.

I advise you, however, not to use this weakness to try to simply block the independent-minded Skype pioneers in your company. Make SIP- compliant Internet calling widely available to your employees instead. SIP calls with good manageability should be just as attractive to users as Skype. And going with SIP-based software might encourage Skype's founders to bring their software into SIP compliance. That would keep your users speaking to one another.

Brian Livingston is editor of BriansBuzz. com. His column appears every other week in eWEEK. To send tips, visit www. Send your comments to

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