Friday, July 07, 2006

"Free" internet calls as expensive as a satellite phone

There is no doubt that internet telephony – or Voice-over-IP – has revolutionised modern communications and forced fixed-line operators to lower their hitherto exorbitant charges and make special all-inclusive offers available. Since broadband has come of age and Skype perfected peer-to-peer voice calling, individuals are increasingly abandoning fixed line and mobile phones in favour of internet calls, especially when calling abroad. In Taipei experiments with mobile phones which can switch to using wireless networks are successfully being implemented and will pose a major challenge to, also overpriced, mobile phone operators, although not likely in the UK for some time, since the charges for logging into a WiFi connection are also outrageously high.

Skype was successful because the software was simple and easy to use and calls between Skype users were free. Then Skype-out, the option to call ordinary landlines and mobiles from a computer, was added as well as Skype-in, the option to have a "landline" number which would be diverted to the computer or an answer machine when the computer was switched off. As the VoIP technology developed, so did the competition, and proliferation of technology and lack of compatibility between different communication systems is as much a problem in this area as in any other computer application.

Amongst the Skype contenders were JahJah, which in the early stages was so underdeveloped and user-unfriendly that I uninstalled it as soon as I tried it. Besides, it's privacy policy, or lack of it, did not compete favourably with Skype's encryption of communications. More successful was Voip-Buster who offered free calls instead of low-cost calls like Skype. And this is where unsuspecting customers would end up spending more money than they might originally have done using their ancient fixed-line copper network: To qualify for free calls you had to buy at least a minimum amount of credit. A few months later the majority of calls became chargeable, even from one European country to another. It was still a cheap deal, provided you made lots of foreign calls. If you didn't, you would suddenly find out that your credit expired after a few months and with ten Euros disappearing all of a sudden during a time of little calling activity those few phone calls made via the software would have cost more than if they had been made by satellite phone.

This is what happened to me. Voip-Buster sent me a warning 6 days prior to my credit expiring, but I was too busy to deal with it. Then my credit was gone. At the time of buying the credit there was no warning that credit was time-limited, so to make it expire after the purchase is strictly speaking illegal in my opinion, but how do you pursue an internet company in another country when the sums involved are trivial and the company does not reply to messages. So they make their money. When enough people abandon them they move on and launch a new software.

This is exactly what Voip-Buster did. After some half year in operation they emailed their customers with a link to free internet calling software called imaginatively "internetcalls" and which turned out to be a carbon copy of the old software, down to the minutest detail, except that it sported an appalling all orange user interface and, more importantly, calls to some countries were still free. Having been bitten once, however, I shall not rush and buy credit.

Advances in technology, in particular the internet, have revolutionised communications. A lot of the potential benefits, however, are unfortunately rolled back due to individual companies' profiteering protectionism. Using a USB data stick, for example, you could carry your whole hard drive with you on a trip, without having to shoulder a heavy laptop, if only you could use it in any computer running the same operating system. Unfortunately, Microsoft, which still has the edge over open-source software, would not allow you to do so since they want to make money from licences and upgrades to licences. They have now perfected their controls to a degree that you cannot even change a major component on your own computer without the software complaining and requiring re-registration. Many software applications by other vendors also demand obtaining a new licence code after major system changes, which makes expensive software useless unless it continues to be supported by the manufacturer, and if they go out of business the expensive goods you've bought from them might go down the drain with them.

In order to benefit from progress in computing and communication technology, rather than be hampered by restrictive practices, the whole issue of licensing and charging would need to be looked at. There is no longer a justification for high landline and mobile telephone charges, nor for withholding ownership from software products once they have been bought. Commercial greed, unfortunately, is once more standing in the way of progress.


At 7 July 2006 at 12:29, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are at least two alternative to consider..

1) Gizmo
2) Yahoo Messenger (US Version)

Gizmo is distributed under an Open Source licence so it benefits from the "many eyes" method of ensuring encryption algorithms are strong etc, and is free to use when staying within VOIP

Yahoo is cheapest for calling out to UK mobiles (about 10p per minute). Note it must be the US version. For some retarded reason Yahoo UK uses BT and has BT prices which are much more expensive and complicated by comparison. The US version works fine for messaging and calling worldwide.

Interesting blog entry! (Found it via the Newsnow website)


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