Next up, Skype - the 800-pound gorilla

It's time to take a look at Skype. The first thing to be aware of is that Skype is the proverbial "800 pound gorilla" in the room.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor on

It's time to take a look at Skype. The first thing to be aware of is that Skype is the proverbial "800 pound gorilla" in the room. On a typical day they have between 8 million and 10 million users logged in, according to the information given in the Skype main window. If you believe their propaganda, they have several hundred million user accounts, but of course there is no way to know how many of those are "active", how many are duplicates, and so on. Still, even with exceptions and adjustments, the number is impressive.

Getting the Skype installation package is simple, from their web page, and they have versions for Windows, Mac, Linux, and some mobile devices. I will be concerned only with the Windows version here. It can be difficult to keep up with the "current version" of Skype for Windows, as they seem to release new major and minor versions very frequently. They have progressed from version 2.5 to version 3.6 in less than a year.

Installing Skype can, unfortunately, be a difficult and frustrating experience. There seem to be recurrent problems with corrupted downloads from their web site, which result in Windows saying the installation file "is not a valid Win 32 application". This has happened to me several times, and a quick search of the Skype User Forums (http://forum.skype.com) will reveal many, many instances of this problem being reported. Usually it can be solved by clearing the browser cache and re-downloading, or by using a different browser to download it, but in extreme cases it is necessary to download to a different PC, and then move the installer image over via USB disk.

Just getting a valid copy of the Skype installer image is not enough, though. There have been lots of problems with installer conflicts, corrupted upgrades, registry errors and the likes. In fact, the installation problems have been so numerous and so severe, that they have their own 5-page pinned topic on the Skype for Windows User Forum!

Once the installer is running correctly, you will get a very simple-looking window, asking you what language you want to install, and if you accept the license agreement and privacy statement. The apparent simplicity masks some important and sometimes difficult choices, though. At the lower left corner of the window is an innocuous-looking button labeled "Options". Click on that and you find options to install the "Skype Extras Manager", and browser plug-ins for Internet Explorer and Firefox. Unfortunately, there is no explanation of what any of these actually do. The "Extras Manager" is the interface between Skype and external add-on programs. The browser plug-ins actually modify the behavior of your web browser, if you use Internet Explorer or Firefox, so that anything that remotely resembles a telephone number will be boxed and highlighted, and linked so that if you click on it, Skype will automatically try to call that number. This, of course, depends on you having a SkypeOut account, so you can make outgoing PSTN calls.

The down side of these "Options" is that they seem to be very buggy. One of the biggest installation problems, which I mentioned above, comes from Skype trying (and failing) to install the browser plug-ins; a large portion of the installation problems reported on the Skype User Forums are solved by stopping the installation of these add-ons. Likewise, even after Skype is installed and seems to be working properly, users often find that Internet Explorer suddenly has major problems, either crashing as soon as it starts, or opening the Skype web page "automatically" hundreds of times, or in extreme cases even crashing the entire computer. Last, even if everything is working correctly, there have been a lot of complaints that the Skype "reformatting" of numbers in web pages makes them difficult or impossible to read; they frequently don't fit in the box that Skype puts around them, so you are no longer able to see the last digit or two of the number.

The moral of the story, especially if you are a new user installing Skype for the first time, is that you are probably going to be better off if you just go to the installation options screen and un-check everything. If you decide that you want or need one of the extras later, it is simple to reinstall Skype with the extras included.

Once Skype is successfully installed, signing up for a "free" account is quick and easy. Now you get to see the advantage of dealing with the "800 pound gorilla" - there are millions and millions of users registered already, and your chances of finding people you know on Skype are very good. This can be a disadvantage as well, of course, because there are so many people registered that searching for "John Brown" doesn't produce very useful results. The search can be narrowed by country, state or even city, if the person you are looking for has entered that much information in their Skype profile. However, the best and most efficient way to add a friend is for them to simply give you their Skype name.

Skype allows you to have text chat, audio calls and video calls with your contacts. Text and audio-only calls can be multi-party, but video calls are limited to one-to-one. If you are in a video call and add a third person, the video portion will automatically be dropped; when any one person leaves the call, the video will automatically return for the remaining two parties.

Skype offers calls to and from traditional land-line and mobile phones (at a fee, of course) with their SkypeOut and SkypeIn plans, but it would we wise to be very cautious about the SkypeIn plan, since they are currently going through a very nasty fiasco concerning their sudden withdrawal of a block of SkypeIn numbers associated with central London on very short notice. There is also a "Skype Pro" package which might be interesting to some people, but be sure to read the fine print; it offers "no per minute charge" calls, but only for certain countries, only when the call is to and from the same country, and there might be a "connect fee" for each call.

The Skype user interface is, uh.... busy. It comes up by default with numerous tabs and buttons, not only for your contacts and history but also for "Skype Find", Skype Live", "Call Phones", and an address bar. Fortunately it can be configured to remove a lot of the unused cruft, once you find the right place in the menu.

I have already gone on much longer than I did with either of the other reviews, but there is simply a lot more to be said, and a lot more to be warned about, with Skype. I will follow up in the next day or two with "Tech Talk" about Skype, and there is once again a lot to be said there. To summarize this part of the review, I would say that if you have some reason to install Skype, such as having friends or family who are already using it, your chances of getting it downloaded, installed and working are pretty good. But if you are starting from scratch with a free choice, you are much more likely to be successful, with much less effort and anguish, with either SightSpeed or ooVoo.

Remember, this is not an "exclusive situation", I frequently have all three of these programs running on my laptop at the same time. If you start with one of the others that is easier to install, configure and use, and you subsequently find that you "need" a different one, you can always install it at some later time.

jw 3/12/2007

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