Rebels Without Cause

While their pedigree as internet visionaries is secure, the founders of Kazaa have little reason to gloat about their recent foray into Voice over IP. Instead of touting Skype as the next big thing, and mouthing gratuitous criticism of those who have built the fledgling VoIP industry, Niklas Zenstrom and Janus Friis should learn a thing or two from the real trailblazers . . . and release a truly innovative program.

When the founders of Kazaa, the famed peer-to-peer file sharing service, recently released Skype, a Microsoft Windows-based Voice over IP software and service, the media stood in attention.

To the pundits, it seems, VoIP became "real" only when the renegades of modern day piracy entered the picture.

It's somewhat understandable, though illogical. Kazaa's founders, Niklas Zenstrom and Janus Friis, are outspoken, bombastic, flamboyant and rebellious – traits that make for interesting news copy.

The fact that some 250 million people around the world downloaded Kazaa, making it, perhaps, the most popular computer application of all time, has helped solidify Zenstrom's and Friis' standing as the eccentric, anti-corporate darlings of the media.

In a recent interview with CNet News' Ben Charny, Friis, who co-founded Skype with Zenstrom and serves as the company's Vice President for Strategy, played the rebel role to maximum effectiveness in touting his company's foray into the world of voice communications. Charny let Friis do the talking and dig his own hole.

Like a monkey with a machine gun, Friis indiscriminately blasted every player – both big and small – in the telecommunications universe. Friis left almost nobody unscathed –the international phone companies, the current VoIP providers and free VoIP services such as Free World Dialup included – in asserting that Skype would change the face of voice communications like no one before.

There's intrinsically nothing wrong with the spirit of rebelliousness Friis and his partner have brought to the computing world. It's a spirit that often leads to change and progress – and innovation that can benefit many. And the pair's decidedly anti-establishment bent is both refreshing and often necessary.

Unfortunately, with Skype, Friis appears to be a rebel without cause.

There is nothing really new about Skype – nothing that technically sets it apart from dozens of other VoIP software programs that have existed for many years. From both a technical and usage perspective, the products offered by companies such as VoicePulse, Vonage, Packet8, SIPPhone, and Free World Dialup, among many others, are significantly superiror to Skype.

For all intents and purposes, Skype is basically a modified version of Microsoft's Windows Messenger program. Skype allows a user to communicate – both via voice and written text – but only with another user on the same software setup.

You can't use a phone with Skype. You don't get a phone number with the program. If someone "calls" you, if you're not by your computer you will not even know. Voice mail is not part of the package. And you can't call your folks' "regular" phone in Colorado with Skype.

Skype, like IM and dozens of other such programs, is the internet-age equivalent of two cans and a string: Fun to play with, but in no way a replacement for even the most rudimentary of phone services.

Given that more than 150 thousand people have already downloaded the program (a high number obtained, no doubt, because of Kazaa's popularity), Skype is likely to burst open the doors of VoIP to many uninitiated computer users.

This is good. Skype's release may help spread the word about VoIP.  And, in both the short- and long-term, the product will probably indirectly drive users to more capable services such as FWD and VoicePulse.

Friis has reason to celebrate the large number of people who have downloaded his new product. But before he can boast of its technical prowess, it would be best for his company to actually offer a product that has prowess. One that's innovative and different.

Skype could  become a technology leader in the future, and Zenstrom and Friis have proven in the past that they are able to accomplish that. But in its current version, Skype is neither innovative nor different.

Before taking didactic pot-shots at those who have blazed difficult trails before them, Friis and Zenstrom should come up with something that's better than what the targets of their bombast already offer.

When it comes to the communications revolution, the real rebels are visionaries like FWD's Jeff Pulver,  VoicePulse's Ravi Sakaria, Packet8's Bryan Martin, Delta3's Shimmy Zimels, Vonage's Jeff Citron, and others too numerous to mention.

Friis and the Skype rebels still have a lot to learn from them.