Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How Skype has captured India

On 20/4/07 8:29 PM, "Kumar" wrote:

The other day, I was in an electrical shop, looking for an electrical wall fitting, when a well-dressed lady, in her late 40s or early 50s, walked in. She asked for something, and just then her mobile phone rang. It's not often that you see someone - anyone - so well dressed
in an electrical shop such as the one I was shopping in; this place is usually frequented by the small-time contractor types, and their workers. So, as she answered the phone, I, I'm sorry to say, positioned myself to eavesdrop better. And this is what I heard:

"Oh yes, the computer is on. No, beta, I'm not at home right now. OK, I'm coming home now, and I'll call you on Skype as soon as I get home."

In 15 seconds, she paid for what she had bought, hailed an autorickshaw, and vanished from sight.

That is when it hit me: how Skype has entered the life of so many Indians.

So here we are again, using a product because it's free, useful (actually, vital, to some), and untouched by politicians. But not really sure of who the providers are, and privacy issues. So I did some research on these issues.

First, the who. Skype may have started as, but is no longer, a fly-by-night operation. The Skype Group was acquired by eBay in October 2005, and is headquartered in Luxembourg, with offices in London, Tallinn and Prague. So we have a big name behind it now.

Next, the privacy concern. This is hard to address. Being a closed, proprietary peer-to-peer protocol, we really cannot be sure that it's not been hacked into. It's free, so any attackers aren't doing it for publicity. That makes it all the more scary, because that leaves only two candidates in the field: criminals and governments (come to think of it, the two have a lot in common). Reportedly, Skype uses openly available, strong encryption algorithms. But you have to take their word for it. Just don't even think of terms like "backdoor".

What about worms? Viruses? Trojans? Malware? Nothing ever attacked the good old telephone system except rats, nature, and corrupt PSU employees. But Skype, like all VOIP systems, is primarily software, and primarily residing on a PC, so it is just as vulnerable as any
software on the PC, or the PC itself. And now, specific attacks are being directed on Skype software.

In March 2007, F-Secure detected a new Skype Worm as IM-Worm: W32/Pykse.A. The security company said that the Pykse. A worm spreads via Skype instant messages, posing as a link to a photograph of a scantily clad young model called Sandra. Once a user clicks on the link, and views the image, the user's PC is infected with a downloader Trojan which then installs the worm. Once the Pykse.A worm is up and running, it then attemps to connect to a number of remote Web sites.

The fix: Nothing new. Protect your PC, and Skype will be safe. Just keep your antivirus updated, and be careful of which sites you visit.

m I on the right side of the law? In India, it is legal to use VoIP, but it is illegal to have VoIP gateways inside India. This effectively means that people who have PCs can use them to make a VoIP call to any number anywhere in the world, but if the remote side is a normal phone, the gateway that converts the VoIP call to a POTS call should
not be inside India. So, you're OK making free Skype calls, or even making the paid Skypeout calls (you use your PC to make a call to a normal telephone at the other end). Even if the service provider wrongly locates his gateway inside India, it's not your fault.

Oh, we all know it's free, but what about Quality of Service? It's wrong to look a gift horse in the mouth, but drop-outs and latencies will take the joy away from any call you'll make. To some extent, these weaknesses are shared by all VOIP systems, and are not specific to Skype. So, depending on the state of network congestion, your
mileage may vary. The good news is, more dark fibre is getting lit up every day, so the network is, as they say, "getting better and better".

As with all good happenings in India, when success ensues, can the biggest spoilsport of all - the government - be far behind? Oh, yes, the GOI is very much getting into the act, but fortunately for that
good lady in the shop and millions of others like her, the crackdown on internet telephony services will affect only the outsourcers and other IT businesses. Homes are, so far, exempt.

Net2Phone was an early VoIP company. But somehow Skype has turned out to be the dominant force in VoIP. Skype came later, when broadband had permeated the globe better and the public had become used to the
concept. Globalization also meant a lot more people had to make overseas calls.

Skype had better timing. And marketing. And has captured India.