Turn Your Computer into a Phone with Skype
Want to use your computer as a full-fledged telephone, and be able to make free phone calls over the Internet or paid calls to any normal number? How about adding more features, such as instant messaging, file transfers and video conferences? How about being able to use it on Linux, Windows or Mac OS X? If these things interest you, you should install Skype.
Skype is a free, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) program, created in 2003 by Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis. Two years later, eBay acquired it for more than 2.5 billion dollars (plus an unspecified extra amount depending on performance).
As of the beginning of 2008, it has more than 250 million users, both for its free and paid services, in practically every country on earth. When you connect to Skype, in the bottom-right corner, you will see how many other users are on-line at the same time. In my experience, it's usually around ten million, which is a hefty number indeed. Skype derives its income from paid services (including calling or receiving calls from landline or mobile phones, voice mail, call forwarding and so on), but you can use it without paying a cent if you call only other on-line users over the Web.
From Music to TV
Skype wasn't the first collaboration by Zennstrom and Friis, and it isn't their last. In 2000, they created Kazaa, a well-known peer-to-peer file-sharing program. Obviously, they were able to apply the P2P expertise gained there to Skype's own development. Kazaa had plenty of legal problems (similar to those of Napster) because of sharing copyrighted material, mainly music. In 2001, Kazaa was sold to Sharman Networks, which had to face several copyright-related suits. In July 2006, there was an out-of-court settlement, when its Web site seemingly was updated for the last time.
After selling Skype to eBay, Zennstrom and Friis turned to TV and created Joost: a system for distributing video (mainly TV shows) over the Web, once again using the same peer-to-peer technology used on Skype. Joost's development started in 2006, and currently (February 2008), it's at beta. If you want to test-drive this software, however, you are out of luck. For the time being, there are only Windows and OS X versions available. According to some reports, Wine isn't a solution either, though that might change.
Joost will be a free system, supported by advertising, just like traditional TV, aiming for full-screen, high-quality viewing. Though its technology isn't yet mature or fully reliable, it's an interesting concept and free of the legal problems that troubled the original Kazaa. There are some licensing aspects that still need work (most of the available content can be seen only in the US right now), but there's much promise ahead.
The program itself is free, but it's not open source. And, if you like running the best and latest versions of programs, prepare yourself for a disappointment. The current Windows version is 3.6, the current OS X version is 2.6, but Linux is trailing far behind with only a beta, called 2.0. Thus, plenty of features are missing from the Linux version (see the What's Missing in the Linux Version of Skype? sidebar), but Skype still is quite usable as is.
Skype's hardware requirements are pretty modest. You need a 400MHz processor or faster, 256MB of RAM and about 20MB of free disk space. If you want to talk (don't sneer; you can use Skype just for instant messaging), you need a microphone and either earphones or speakers. And, if you want to make video calls, you need a Webcam. Finally, you need to open an account, but you have to install the program first.
Installation should be quite easy. As far as I've seen, it's available for pretty much all distributions, so you should have no problem finding it in your repositories. Because I use Smart, getting Skype simply meant typing smart install skype. In any case, you should check that the version you get is not earlier than 2.0. (To do so, start Skype, click the S on the lower left, select About, and you'll see a window with the version information.) Because Linux lags behind Windows as far as versions, you just might have version 1.4, which would require an upgrade.
If your version is an older one (or if you just want to make sure to have the latest one), visit Skype's download site, and get whatever is correct for your machine. There are distribution-specific versions for Debian, Fedora, Mandriva, MEPIS, OpenSUSE, Ubuntu and Xandros. There also are some generic versions—the “static” one might be best for you.
After the download is ready, open a console, cd to the directory where you downloaded the software, and do sudo rpm -Uvh skype-2-XXX.rpm, and you should be ready.
When you open Skype, if you already have an account and a password, simply enter them to connect (Figure 1). However, if this is your first time ever, or if you just want to create a second or different account, click Don't have a Skype name yet?, and a window will open where you can create an account. Follow the instructions on the screen, and you'll be set (Figure 2). Skype won't allow passwords that are too short, but play it safe, and use a long one, preferably with numbers and special characters.
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