The creators of Kazaa are entering the internet protocol telephony and instant messaging market with Skype, a peer-to-peer application meant for consumer use.
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Skype claims to be a simple, easy-to-install client that works behind most firewalls and gateways, offering connections that are often better than those of the existing telephony system, solving most of the issues that have held back an internet telephony boom, according to Skype's makers.
However, Skype had a rocky start. The service experienced some disruptions because of "unanticipated network growth" after the launch of the first beta late last week, although the company said hose problems were solved in a day.
Skype was founded by Niklas Zennström, now chief executive officer, and Janus Friis, now vice president of business development. Zennström and Friis also launched Kazaa, the popular file-swapping software.
Other members of the Skype team include chief architect Ahti Heinla and several other developers who worked on Kazaa and the Joltid P-to-P content delivery network.
"After Kazaa and Joltid we looked for the next obvious application area for P-to-P technology and we realised that P-to-P could solve the problems of internet telephony. The telephony market is huge so it was an easy decision," Zennström said.
The features of Skype seem little different than those of popular IM services such as Microsoft's MSN Messenger. However, Skype believes its product is superior.
"These IM systems are designed for IM and they have voice chat as an add-on feature. That does not make them ideal for telephony. Skype is designed from the ground to be a telephony application," Zennström said.
On the back end, Skype does not need an expensive centralised directory to keep track of users and their online status, unlike its rivals.
Skype developed a new "Global Index" technology to enable IP telephony and IM on a decentralised P-to-P network where computers drop online and offline without notice. This Global Index technology sets up a multitiered network of hubs, or supernodes, on the P-to-P network to mimic a central directory.
Skype routes calls through the most effective path possible and keeps multiple connection paths open, preventing call interruptions when a node on the route signs off. All calls are encrypted, preventing eavesdropping by nodes the call passes through.
Skype is free during the beta period, which will last for a few months. Eventually, some features and services will require a paid subscription or prepayment.
"First we want to get what we think is a cool piece of software out there. Skype is free during the beta, and there will always be a free version. However, we plan to offer premium services on top of that. Exactly how that will turn out will depend on the feedback we get during the beta period," Zennström said.
Skype has signed up more than 10,000 users in the first six days of its beta launch , Zennström claimed. "For Kazaa it took over two months to reach this number. Skype is a true viral product, where one user will promote it to friends since they can thereby also save telephony costs."
For now, Skype users can only send messages and talk to other Skype users. However, in the future it may be possible to chat with users of other IM clients and place calls to traditional phones using the software.
Skype works on a PC running Windows 2000 or Windows XP with a sound card, microphone and speakers or a headset.
More on Skype and the free beta can be found at http://www.skype.com/
Joris Evers writes for IDG News Service