2011-05-15

Practical Alternatives to Skype (For Me)

(Before I start, I'd like to apologize for the lack of a "Featured Comments" post this week. I saw that there were comments on my article about Mozilla and the DHS, but I didn't have time to thoroughly read and respond to them immediately; by the time I did have time again, Blogger had temporarily shut down, and all the comments got erased. Once again, I apologize to all those who commented on that article and to those who wanted to read it but couldn't because of Blogger issues.)
Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Microsoft has just bought Skype for $8.5 billion. That's a lot of money! But the bigger issue is that it's Microsoft, and we know how Microsoft and interoperability go together (hint: they don't).
Microsoft has said that they are committed to maintaining the Skype program and services across all existing platforms for the foreseeable future. That means that I can use Skype on Linux Mint for at least a little while longer. However, that probably won't be the case forever. Why? Well, Microsoft hasn't released things like Microsoft Office for Linux, though it has released them for Apple's Mac OS X, which means the worst thing that could happen is that Skype is retained for Mac OS X but is dropped for Linux at some point.

As I use Skype quite frequently, this is bad news for me. I remember getting a few comments in my review of Trisquel 4.0.1 "Taranis" chastising me for using Skype, which is proprietary software. While I certainly do support the principles of free software, at the end of the day I want to get things done well. I'm using Linux Mint 9 LTS "Isadora" because it's customizable, fast, secure, safe, and free, and it's certainly more customizable, fast, and secure than the comparable Microsoft Windows 7 installation I also have on my computer. Yet, I've retained that because I still do occasionally play some games that don't work in Linux. Similarly, I'm not going to stop using Skype just because it's proprietary; it works really well for me, and convincing my (often computer-averse) family and friends to switch to free software alternatives like Ekiga or Empathy is much easier said than done.

So why am I bringing up Ekiga and Empathy? Well, a lot of articles I saw in the Linux world suggested Ekiga, Empathy, and a few other similar free software VOIP clients as alternatives to Skype. I'm just saying right off the bat that those programs won't work for me because in all likelihood, my family and friends will be loath to switch just to talk to me. So I need other, more popular alternatives.

One is Google Chat with Voice & Video. This will certainly work because almost all of my Skype contacts also use Gmail, so it'll be easy to switch that way. Plus, it has worked flawlessly for me in Linux Mint.

The other that I can think of is the recently released AV by AIM. Basically, this is a free, in-browser VOIP client (with video capabilities too) that allows you to generate a link that you can share with up to 3 other friends to have a secure conversation without needing to install any extra software (other than Adobe Flash). I tried this last night, but because I don't have the very latest update of Adobe Flash 10.3, the website hung trying to detect my laptop's integrated webcam and mic. I'm guessing this is another of the Adobe Flash troubles similar to the one I had with Hulu, so I'll try AV by AIM again using a 32-bit live medium of a different distribution to see if Adobe Flash works well there.

Well, there you have it; these are the alternatives to Skype that I am currently considering, and these are things you can consider too. I hope you found this post helpful; I also hope to write (later in the week) about why there are so few successful free software projects that have come entirely from the community (maybe — don't hold your breath). I also plan to have at least 2 new distribution reviews out. Stay tuned!

29 comments:

  1. There's Brosix, a proprietary VOIP application, and there is Jitsi a LGPL licensed VOIP client, both are cross platform Linux Mac and Windows, and both are as easy to install and configure as Skype.

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  2. Sorry for disturbing you but I'm still dreaming in really freedom softwares or any related services just like ubuntu.

    Well, for me it's not a big deal when I see Microsoft Skype because most Skype and Google services are forbidden!!! Do you know why? because I'm living in Syria!!!

    Syria is already on U.S. black list so I prefer to use any open source alternatives because we're suffering from western democracy!!!

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  3. I believe Google Voice is only available for US users... Not very helpful...
    Martik suggested another alternative in comments to my blog post about instant messengers.

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  4. Google Chat from the Gmail webpage works perfectly for me from NZ. I even chat to a friend in Iran with it and both video and voice work flawlessly.

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  5. I find it hard to believe that Microsoft is going to cut off paying customers like me just out of spite for Linux, especially when Skype itself is built on Qt and there is almost no difficulty in supporting it- I could package it myself in my spare time, so Microsoft probably won't have a lot of issues in that regard.

    Then again, they could be buying Qt applications since they see it as a competing platform and making them somehow non-Qt, or making them rely on Mono, or all kinds of things. Or they could simply not be doing anything horrible and actually not have an evil plan behind buying the most popular VOIP service available.

    Until I see some proof, I'm not going to assume the intentions of anyone in Microsoft, because the company has changed a lot (although it, admittedly, is still flailing just as wildly against Linux at times, only more quietly), and if this is the start of a mutual benefit for the community and Microsoft, I think we should grasp it, and stop criminalizing Microsoft before they even do anything bad.

    The best thing we do when we make these assumptions (and I am guilty of it, too) is give Microsoft ideas of what their users think. And if I'm paying the price for Skype as a home phone, I'd hate to have that taken away because of some silly idea that Linux users don't care anymore. They don't have to, but I hope they can see I care from my bills, lol.

    I'm totally all for using Google's service, until the free and open alternatives get better branding and visibility.

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  6. @tracyanne: Brosix looks pretty nice, though one downside is the lack of conference calling. The other issue is actually getting my contacts to use it. Jitsi doesn't seem to have anything that I can't already do with Google Chat with Voice/Video, so I'm probably going to pass on that.
    @Muhammad Bashir Al-Noimi: In that case, it's great that you're actively trying to find free software alternatives to fit your needs! That said, I have seen in a lot of cases that software preferences tend to be regional when it comes to free software, so if something catches on in Syria, it probably won't catch on here in the US (I think).
    @DarkDuck: I think you're confusing Google Voice (a call forwarding service) with Google Chat with Voice/Video (a VOIP service). As you said, the former is only available in the US, but the latter is available around the world; I can attest to this because I have been able to communicate with relatives 8500 miles away.
    @Zona de Slumbergod: True that!
    @Murder's Last Crow: You're right that I shouldn't be assuming Microsoft's intentions right off the bat. However, with it's track record, I don't think it hurts to be looking for alternatives proactively rather than frantically looking for one if by chance Microsoft does end support for Skype on Linux one day.
    Thanks for the comments!

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  7. Any thoughts or experience with Linphone? I am considering alternatives too, but not because of the Microsoft thing. Linphone has a blackberry app (i have a bb), and appears to support all major platforms on the PC and smartphone.

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  8. @Muhammad Bashir Al-Noimi: Your accusations about "western democracy" are unfounded. The problem with Google et al. and access in Syria isn't "the West", it's the USA. The USA isn't a democracy. It's a fascist republic, where large corporations control the government and the people have no real voice.

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  9. @Muhammad Bashir Al-Noimi - Glad to hear you are looking for ways to express yourself. You know that the problem is not the US or the West, but the Assad clan's iron fist and support of terror (even against Syria's citizens, as well known by now).

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  10. I wonder why you didn't mention GNU's Free Phone:
    http://planet.gnu.org/gnutelephony/?p=17

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  11. Very... Nice... Blog.. I really appreciate it...

    Thanks..:-)

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  12. @PV:
    As long as there is alternative from Google, then I believe Microsoft will NOT drop the Skype for Linux. My bet is they don't want to drop share of the market, especially when such a big opponent is on another side.

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  13. @Anonymous 1: That could be good for people on BlackBerrys, but I don't think many of my contacts would use VOIP software except on a regular computer.
    @Anonymous 2: I'm not sure what all the hate on the US is, or how the issue with Syria is "western democracy" (unless that's the propaganda the Syrian government has been feeding to the Syrian people). Sure, the US government has many, many holes, but it works well enough to let things like Skype, Google Chat, et cetera to continue operating!
    @Anonymous 3: I fully support that notion. :)
    @D: I didn't mention it because wherever I've read about it, it seems to be about as developed as the Hurd kernel (i.e. not at all).
    @Free Conference Calls: I'm glad you like it!
    @DarkDuck: That's fair enough.
    Thanks for the comments!

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  14. @PV Free conference calls is a spam link :P

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  15. @JeffHoogland: I know, and I figured as much when I first saw it, but I'm letting it slide because the link isn't blatantly advertised in the comment itself. Thanks for the tip!

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  16. Nobody mention the cross platform pidgin which supports gtalk (Google Talk), Facebook, XMPP, Jabber, MSN, Yahoo!, AIM, ICQ, and more.

    It even does voice and video chat.

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  17. @dadreggors: I use Pidgin daily for AIM and Yahoo!, and I know it supports Google Chat, Facebook Chat, et cetera, but I thought bringing voice & video capabilities to Pidgin was long dead. I'll only believe this when I see it, so could you point me to a site showing that these capabilities are still being actively developed? Thanks for the comment!

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  18. I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this post. You make some very informative points . Keep up the great work!

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  19. @Free Conference Call provider: Thanks for the support, though I would appreciate it more if you could do it without providing the spam link.

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  20. I just found your web site for the first time and I think it is marvelous — an extremely valuable, well written and well presented. I learned a lot. I just added you to my favorites and will be back.

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  21. @free conference call provider: I appreciate that you like this site, but please drop the spam link from your user profile.

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  22. Thanks for your reality-based approach to this issue. (People suggesting GNU Free Call remind me of an old Slashdot poll on "Best Office Suite" where a third of posters nominated notepad, Vi or emacs.)

    I'm going to switch too, and to a completely open protocol so that I never have to worry about one single client/service provider not working right or staying up-to-date on all platforms (e.g. Skype on Linux). And I need to be able offer a user-friendly option to family, friends, co-workers etc (inc. in China, where the Great Firewall often causes problems for anything Google-related).

    But I don't know enough to choose between SIP and Jabber/Jingle so I wanted both. But very few clients have that.

    Jitsi offers both but is way too buggy, on XP at least (e.g. taskbar stuffed with buttons for chat windows that can't be closed without quitting). Trying a video call then a voice call (via Jingle), the sound was so bad that a conversation was impossible. Thinking of SIP, for some reason my friend could see my SIP ID in her contact list but I couldn't see her in mine.

    Of course it's possible I or she could have researched and found out how to fix every single problem but I can't do that with every single person I need to communicate with.

    So I guess I'll have to go with a more polished client which means I just have to pick one protocol (as the more developed clients are "either/or": either SIP or Jabber but not both).

    Any advice on that would be much appreciated.

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  23. @G.A.L.E.S.L.: The only thing I fear about this article is that it will preempt people to move away from Skype. The problem with that is that it will only further prompt Microsoft to drop Linux support from Skype, and at that point they will have a good reason to do so. To be clear, I will continue using Skype on Linux until it can no longer be done. Thanks for the comment!

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  24. So you're at the whim of Microsoft. Living at the whim of one company is exactly why I need to drop Skype, not cling to it even more.

    But then if none of the FLOSS options are up to scratch...

    The old chicken-and-egg dilemma.

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  25. @G.A.L.E.S.L.: I think you have misunderstood me. You and I should be actively searching for alternatives, but we shouldn't ditch Skype immediately, because that'll be all the reason Microsoft needs to ditch Linux support for Skype. If I drop Skype now, search fruitlessly for free software alternatives, and then try to come back to Skype only to find its Linux support dropped, I will not only not have a suitable VOIP client but I will have also gone without one needlessly; I would rather use Skype while I still can rather than preemptively ditching it. Thanks for the comment!

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  26. OIC, sorry about that.

    Have you settled on a protocol yet? SIP or Jabber/Jingle? There seem to be more (and more polished) clients for SIP but from a few things I've absorbed it seems Jabber/Jingle will be the way of the future.

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  27. @G.A.L.E.S.L.: I'm sticking with Google Chat with Voice/Video (which I guess would be Jingle/XMPP) because that's already my other main method of videoconferencing aside from Skype. Thanks for the comment!

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  28. From reading up on Google Talk/Chat, it seems it's only partially XMPP/Jingle. IM with any other XMPP user is fine, but voice only works with users of other Google products (and only on some operating systems), because they use an older, unpublished non-standard version of Jingle. Video isn't even present in the stand-alone client, only in the browser plug-in for users of Gmail.

    So the Google option again restricts me and my contacts to the product/service of one company.

    Also it seems the "international" version of Google Talk/Chat is unencrypted; one of the reasons I want to get away from Skype is that most Chinese users have the officially-sanctioned China version (called TOM) which has a government-eavesdropping "feature" built in.

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  29. @G.A.L.E.S.L.: Ah. I certainly see how those things would create big issues for users. I hope that you find a suitable replacement soon. Thanks for the comment!

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