Talking to the World with Skype

April 2005

One more time: you can use your computer and the Internet to talk to anyone anywhere in the world for free. Skype, the software that lets you do this, is hot — over 140,000 people download it each day.

You might be wondering, what’s new about this? It’s been around a long time. In fact, we’ve covered it in the past.

There seem to be several reasons why Skype is taking the Internet world by storm. Other services that were formerly free are now charging money. Skype is easy to set up and use. And it works behind a firewall, whereas other services often don’t. Plus, more people now have broadband (though it also works with dialup).

You download the free Skype software, and can then talk to other Skype users anywhere in the world. You speak into the microphone in your computer, and the person’s voice comes out your computer’s speakers.

You can also use Skype to call a regular telephone, but the charge is 2¢ per minute (and it may not work behind a firewall).

I’d been hearing about Skype and had been wanting to try it, especially after a Mac version came out a few months ago. (It’s also available for Windows, Linux, and Pocket PC.) A couple of my friends who are using it encouraged me to download it, and that was the impetus that made me jump.

I downloaded and installed it. The next day when my computer rang, I realized I was getting a Skype call, and clicked the Answer button that appeared on my screen. I didn’t note who was calling (via the built-in caller ID), assuming it was one of my friends.

In fact, to my surprise it was someone calling from Israel! He’d seen my name in the Skype directory and wondered if were related, since he has the same last name. Welcome to the world of Skype.

The first time I tried Skype I was amazed by the quality. It was much better than a speakerphone. It sounded like the person was right there with me. But it doesn’t always work so well. If there’s congestion on the Internet, the sound can be broken up.

Another glitch can be echo. On my laptop, the microphone is right next to the speakers. The person’s voice comes out the speaker and goes into the microphone. He hears an annoying echo that makes a conversation difficult.

The solution couldn’t be simpler: you simply plug in a pair of earphones or earbuds into your computer. They cost as little as $1–5. That way the person’s voice can’t go into your microphone. Or if your computer has speakers that aren’t near the microphone, particularly external speakers, that works too.

To get started, you simply download Skype to your computer. You pick a username and password — and that’s it. No configuration. People who’ve used other services say that there’s no comparison: Skype is utterly simple to begin using.

With some services, you need a fixed IP address, but not Skype. Everything is automatic. Skype figures out where on the Internet you are and lets anyone who has your username call you — much the same way e-mail automatically reaches you if someone has your e-mail address.

To call someone, you add that person’s name to your contact list. You then select the name, and click the Call button. They hear a ringing sound, see a dialog box on the screen that lets them know who’s calling, and click the button if they want to answer. And then, you’re talking.

People can only call you if you’re computer is on and you’re connected to the Internet. Your contact list not only lists the names of the people you’re in touch with, but also indicates if they’re currently online. Also, if they’re already talking on Skype, it indicates that as well. A friend told me that if you call someone who is already talking via Skype, they’ll get a ring and can put the other person on hold to take your call.

You can adjust the settings if you don’t want people to see that you’re online, and you can select from a range of other choices, from “Do Not Disturb” to “Skype Me.”

You can also choose how much or little information to put in your user profile. I suggest you be cautious here. This information shows up in the Skype directory.

Give it a try. It’s fun — and free.

© 2005 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen