SkypeKit Hypocrisy

Skype finally announced it’s much-anticipated new project, SkypeKit. It’s a new SDK that basically separates the Skype user interface from their underlying proprietary protocol used to make and receive voice and video calls. I was generally thinking this would be good news since it will allow Skype to be incorporated into other programs like the multi-protocol IM apps Pidgin, Empathy, and Adium. However, I was disappointed and somewhat appalled to read the following in their announcement:

Is SkypeKit ‘open’? What will you restrict?

The topic of openness is often debated and its definition can mean different things to different people. For starters, we believe in an open Internet and open standards. We are adopting an open approach meaning we are releasing APIs and enabling others to use SkypeKit and apply it in new ways. But, SkypeKit won’t be opened up to every single use case that developers dream up. For example, our license terms prohibit using SkypeKit for gambling or adult-themed applications.

This infuriated me. Where do I start with it? The first sentence is absolutely true. However, it’s completely irrelevant to the proprietary Skype universe. They’re hinting that SkypeKit somehow fits under one of those definitions. It doesn’t. The second sentence may also be true. They just happen to not practice what they believe in because their protocol and codecs, although free, are definitely not “open.” The third sentence is an oxymoron. Since when does “an open approach” mean “letting other people plug into your software?” That’s actually offensive to me. The fourth sentence further highlights the oxymoron of the previous sentence. The fifth sentence is a hyperbole used to make readers think that SkypeKit will only disallow spammers or societal deviants from using their service. Of course, who they actually disallow will be at their discretion.

As a Skype user and a little bit of a fan, I have to say that I’m quite appalled by the SkypeKit announcement. I can overlook the closed-source, proprietary nature of Skype because it works well for me but only if they’re honest about it. If they continue to hawk their service like it’s FOSS (in any way), I probably won’t be interested in continuing my business with them.

So, let me summerize SkypeKit for you. They separate their underlying service/protocol from the outer user interface. This allows Skype to work on more devices easily (including computer applications, televisions, phones, media centers, etc.), where the user interfaces are always different. This will allow Skype to become integrated into, for example, Pidgin/Adium, AIM, Google Chat, Google Chrome OS, and your TV. Skype acts like they’re doing you a favor by allowing their service to run on it. (Maybe they are?). But Skype also charges developers fees if they want to incorporate Skype’s protocol into one of their projects. Gee, so now they’re not free (as in gratis), free (as in libre), or open. Why couldn’t they just answer “no” and be honest with everyone? They could’ve saved face in my book.

Show your support

Advertising is a huge business on the Internet. Actually, advertising is huge just about everywhere.

Some readers get annoyed by bloggers who use referral links in posts to promote products that will ultimately make them money. They feel like the Internet should be free of ads, and in some ways they’re justified. Occasionally, bloggers use these posts purely to generate money for their site (i.e. the post is simply a commercial), but others are just interested in telling their readers about a new product that they’ve discovered. And there’s a difference between promoting products that you use and love and just being a shill. In the same way, from a potential buyer’s perspective there’s a difference between watching a commercial or listening to a sales pitch telling you that Chevy makes the best cars and having your friend who’s a mechanic tell you how reliable Chevy’s are.

A lot of people (myself included) get annoyed by the amount of advertising on the Internet. It’s easy to become dismissive of the pop-up flashing pictures and AdWords, but I think there’s something to be said for people and sites that provide a service or take the time to tell you about a product that they use and enjoy. For example, last year I had never heard of the group Vampire Weekend, but I discovered their newest album on The Hype Machine Zeitgeist 2008 and really liked it. When I decided to buy the album, I made sure to click the referral link from The Hype Machine website to Amazon MP3 so that they’d get credit for my purchase because, in all honesty, they deserved it. We (as Internet consumers) need to embrace this and actually promote effective advertising. If a person, blog, or website grabs your interest enough for you to purchase something and they offer a referral link, give them credit and help them make a little bit of cash. It encourages them to keep doing what they’re doing and it usually doesn’t take any charity on your part.

If enough people take the time to encourage those who are advertising effectively (and unobtrusively), it will send a message to the industry that quality is at least as important as quantity in advertising.

I also feel compelled to promote less tangible goods. I use a lot of free software every day. It’s easy to forget that most Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) developers are working in their free time, which could easily be spent with their friends and families. Many such developers accept Paypal donations or offer an Amazon wishlist for people to donate from. A number of bigger software projects also sell merchandise that helps make them money. If you (consciously or unconsciously) have trouble convincing yourself to donate money, this is a great alternative that allows you to get something in return. I encourage people to buy these things for me as gifts, and I buy some myself. So far I’ve got 2 Firefox shirts and 2 xkcd shirts. I’ve got a list of quite a few other projects that I plan to support by purchasing merchandise in the future.

Advertising is a huge business on the Internet. Make sure to remember that you, the consumer, have the power to reinforce effective advertising and to support people who make your life better without providing a tangible product. If you provide useful information or reviews on your website, it might be a good idea for you to provide referral links that can actually get you something in return for your work. And before you buy your next purchase online, stop and consider who or what influenced your purchase. Is there any way for you to give them credit for it? If we could all capitalize on this word-of-mouth advertising, it would (hopefully) decrease the amount of in-your-face advertising that plagues us all.

Side note: Don’t get the wrong idea. This post is in no way implying anything about my wanting to make money from this blog or for projects that I support. It’s just a statement on advertising in general.

Portable Apps

Have you ever wanted to take Firefox with you to another computer that doesn’t have it installed? Ever needed to chat on a computer that doesn’t have an instant messaging client installed? Do you have a flash drive? If so, PortableApps may very well be for you [hat tip Srinu]. PortableApps is a free/open-source application that turns your flash drive into a sort of portable computer. It lets you bring all your favorite applications to a new computer. This means you can save your Firefox bookmarks and plug-ins and bring them with you. In fact, you can carry a lot of open-source software with you wherever you go. This includes games, any instant messaging service (via Pidgin), and even a CD/DVD burning program. This is a great piece of software for students who are constantly using public computers where you can’t install applications yourself.

Rush users actually have quite a bit of use for this. You can browse with Firefox despite the fact that the IT department refuses to allow it on any university computers. Another little-known fact is that Firefox can bypass BlueCoat, the firewall that RUMC uses to block unwanted traffic to sites like MySpace and YouTube. Don’t get too excited, though. They know about this and they’ll have it fixed soon. Still, I feel like PortableApps is an essential tool for people who want to carry their preferred open-source software with them to be used on any Windows machine. Download it today!

Selling free software

I think one of the best examples of how free software can work great (and be even be sold) is Dell’s adoption of Ubuntu. They can take free software (Ubuntu) and custom-tailor it to work on their specific laptops and desktops. They can even custom-compile their own Linux kernels that they don’t contain extemporaneous junk for hardware not in their computers. This could make an overall fast and efficient machine! Their software has to remain free, so people can examine it and suggest ways to improve Dell’s flavor of Ubuntu, tell Dell about something that’s in Ubuntu that’s they’d like to see automatically included in the Dell release (like DVD support), and they can even submit patches to Dell if they know how to code. Plus, if Dell finds a problem and figures out how to solve it, the fix can be pulled back upstream to the regular Ubuntu release. Even more importantly, a user can decide to take Dell’s flavor of Ubuntu and make their own version of it (if Dell does something poorly that they won’t fix it, for example). Not to mention, Dell is a big company. If they’re having problems getting hardware that will work under Ubuntu, there’s going to be more pressure for hardware vendors to support their products freely.

Some people are attracted to Ubuntu and other Linux distributions because many of them don’t cost anything. Thus, a computer can be $100 cheaper to buy because Dell doesn’t have to charge you the $100 for a Microsoft Windows license. What I’d like to see is for Dell to actually charge a little bit of money for Ubuntu. Not $100, mind you, but how about $20-30? I don’t want Dell keeping the profits from this though. Rather, I’d like to see them make some major contributions to the FSF and the Ubuntu project. Or they could make the $20-30 donation optional. The FSF even encourages the selling of free software. This will help foster growth of their system, and it’s a solid investment on their behalf. Plus, I don’t think many users would complain about being charged a nominal fee as long as they know it’s to help support the growth of their new operating system.

Microsoft to squash third world economies

In a rather disturbing article, I found out that Microsoft was none too pleased that One Laptop Per Child has been distributing laptops with a free and open source linux operating system installed (RHEL). They can’t have everyone in a third world country growing up using gnu/linux and not Windows. Plus think about all the money they’ll be losing in the long run. It’s a much better idea to make sure these people pay for the technology they’re using and the knowledge they’re gaining with DRM.

With OLPC based on all Free Software, it was likely that those books would have themselves been under similar licensing like Creative Content. Now, it is likely that third world students will be running DRM-locked textbooks that are only acessable under Windows. -Bruce Perens

More From Debian

From a related page:

Most software costs over 100 US dollars. How can you give it away?
A better question is how do software companies get away with charging so much? Software is not like making a car. Once you’ve made one copy of your software, the production costs to make a million more are tiny (there’s a good reason Microsoft has so many billions in the bank).

Debian — About Debian

Inspiring Words from Debian

I found myself on Debian‘s website today for the first time ever, I think. This is weird considering I’m a big supporter of their philosophy. Nonetheless, they had some inspiring words on free software. The quote below is an example, but the whole page deserves a read to be honest.

Software that is free only in the sense that you don’t need to pay to use it is hardly free at all. You may be forbidden to pass it on, and you are almost certainly prevented from improving it. Software licensed at no cost is usually a weapon in a marketing campaign to promote a related product or to drive a smaller competitor out of business. There is no guarantee that it will stay free.

Debian — What Does Free Mean?