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blog.gkaindl.com » Can you hear me on Skype?

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Can you hear me on Skype?

I’m by far not a heavy Skyper, but there’s one thing I’ve noticed during my occasional Skype calls to people I know or don’t know: Almost every call I’ve participated in so far started with something along the lines of “Hey, can you hear me? Is it working?”.

Now I think this is somewhat interesting, considering that nobody would ever say something like this on an ordinary landline call. Even on the cellphone, you wouldn’t ask unless you actually got the feeling that either you or the other party has bad reception: It’s definitely not a thing you would start your call with.

It makes sense, though: Have you actually ever been on a landline call where the other party couldn’t hear you (or vice versa)? Didn’t think so. It’s a little bit different with cellphone calls, since we all know they can be flaky sometimes. However, we’re still more inclined to believe they should work (coverage is generally good) rather than not work. We wouldn’t ask the other party to confirm that they can hear us unless their behavior gives us a reason to doubt it.

Skype, though, suffers from two issues in this respect: It’s a black box and has a lot of potential for failure.

It’s a black box because we don’t know how it works. Well, as technologists, we know it has something to do with P2P, we can even sniff some packets (although Skype traffic is encrypted), but the average user is completely unaware of this. Therefore, they expect it to work like a landline phone (which it mimics in so many ways). Landline phones never fail us, though, so it only takes one or two stalled or otherwise broken calls to severely shatter our trust in it. If our landline fails a few times, we call technical support because we know this shouldn’t happen, on Skype, we kinda accept it (remember, we’re used to applications crashing, computers needing an OS reinstall and all that other little headaches), but we lose our trust in it. It’s a landline that doesn’t work like a landline. It’s a black box that sometimes doesn’t do what we want it to.

Potential for failure is also given on so many layers: Skype itself could crash, the computer it’s running on could crash, either we or the other party could have connected their headset the wrong way, the audio settings might be messed up, our network connection might stall or be overloaded, etc. etc… Landlines never crash, though. You don’t need to set them up yourself either. And they don’t get congested. Most users are aware of all these potential issues, and it’s not exactly increasing their trust in the application. I’m feeling pretty sure most people wouldn’t have a problem “setting up” a landline call. But a Skype call, not so much!

Summarizing it, Skype is a good example of a “gadget vs. all-purpose device” dilemma. Gadgets are expected to “just work”. They are highly specialized, but rock-solid, like a CD player (when has your CD player ever crashed or needed you to flush its preference files?). “All-purpose devices”, on the other hand, are not specialized and therefore not as well-tested either. They are error prone, and we accept that. Simplified: Reinstalling Skype on your computer is an acceptable troubleshooting solution, reinstalling the firmware on your landline phone is not. We expect the landline to “just work”, but we only hope that Skype “just works”. It’s a difference.

So, don’t feel alone if you’re not yet ready to ditch your landline for Skype. You didn’t ditch your old fashioned TV for a “computer plus TV card” solution either, did you?

About

Hi, how are you? My name is Georg Kaindl, and I'm a twenty-something from Vienna, Austria. During the day, I'm a CS student at the Vienna University of Technology, but at night, I turn into an independent software developer for the Macintosh platform, social nerd, lazy entrepreneur and intuitive researcher.

I like to write about everything that matters to considerate technology enthusiasts, but humbly retain the right to go off-topic from time to time.

My posts are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

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