Skype can't ignore the sound of silence

Customers couldn't connect this weekend. Philosophy, rather than technology, is at fault

It would be a cruel jest to buy Ott Kaukver The Essential Simon & Garfunkel CD this Christmas. Close harmony folk rock may be to his taste, but it is unlikely that Skype's executive officer for core technology, QA and security will want to hear The Sound of Silence for quite some time.

Skype's weekend outage has lessons for everyone, not just for Mr Kaukver as he battles with testing, load management and the esoterics of network resource contention. If the explanation Skype has given is correct — a global Windows reboot caused by a Microsoft security update triggered a simultaneous login frenzy similar to a denial-of-service attack — then everyone involved in online services will have to ask themselves similar what-ifs. A better demonstration of the unintended consequence is hard to find.

But like the dog that didn't bark, the better lesson concerns another kind of silence. Skype claims nearly quarter of a billion registered users: amazingly few seem to have taken to the blogs and forums to complain. This underlines a fact of life that VoIP proponents are reluctant to discuss. Outside the world of managed business communications, VoIP is an adjunct to the plain old telephone service, not a replacement, and even then purely when it's free.

With things as they are, that is a profoundly sensible instinct for users to follow. It also makes it profoundly difficult to build a decent business model on pure VoIP: while Skype has added the usual frills of IM and video, it hasn't given users the one thing they can't do without — interoperability. Can any one VoIP provider afford enough infrastructure to approach telephonic standards of reliability for billions of users around the world? Certainly not. Could they work together to use each other's systems for redundancy, through open standards? That's what open standards are there for. That's how the internet works. That's the only way it will work.

And by working together to create an environment better in every respect than ordinary telephony, starting with reliability, the VoIP industry can attract proper users with proper money. The job's too big for any one company. So when Kaukver tires of The Sound of Silence, he may care to skip forward a couple of tracks. "I am a rock, I am an island" may make sense for a tortured songwriter, but it's a darn silly way to run a telephone service.