How Free Talk Expands Web Uses

Video-breakfast with grandma is only one way users of Skype and other free Internet services are exploiting the technology

Give people unlimited cheap or free phone or voice-over-Internet service and what happens? Not much, according to research by sociologists and anthropologists. People don't tend to increase the number or length of their calls significantly. There is only so much time you can spend talking, after all, and a phone call requires more commitment in terms of attention than, say, an instant messaging session—just try handling multiple phone conversations in parallel.

Yet there are exceptions. The rise of Skype, MSN, GoogleTalk, iChat and the other free Internet telephony and videotelephony services out there has led people to use voice and video communication in surprising, unconventional, and creative ways.

Here, for instance, are two anecdotes culled from the Skype Web site:

•An American band that had split up after college wanted to reunite for their 10-year reunion, but three of the musicians resided in California, others in Colorado and Massachusetts. With a few amplifiers and some microphone adaptors they practiced in real-time via Skype, and did the reunion gig.

•A piano teacher in Illinois gives private lessons to students across the U.S., and as far away as Europe and Australia. He mails them the assigned arrangements and then listens to them through his Skype headset.

A few weeks ago I started collecting my own stories and anecdotes through my blog and at conferences I was attending, specifying that I was not interested in traveling businessmen keeping in touch with the office, which I considered a "normal" use of Skype. I was looking for more unpredictable uses, and I found plenty:

•An immigrant family from the Balkans living in Switzerland has a big computer screen in their living/dining room, with a Web cam focused on the dining table. The MSN messenger window is open all day, for incoming messages or calls from family back home or friends who migrated to other countries. And almost every morning they have breakfast "with" grandma (the husband's mother) who lives in Kosovo with a similar Webcam set-up.

•A girl in Switzerland, the daughter of immigrants from Spain, gets regular video-over-Internet tutoring from her aunt, a teacher who lives in Spain.

•Several evenings a week, a retired grandfather in New York reads bedtime stories to his young grandson in California over Skype.

•After hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, a group of activists from around the world used SkypeIn and SkypeOut (the features that allow Skype users to communicate with normal phone users and vice-versa) to set up a virtual phone bank and messaging center. Collaborating also with ham radio operators, they relayed emergency messages in and out of the devastated region, let people ask for information, or just let them reach a friendly voice. The phone bank was staffed by volunteers from India, Europe, the Middle East and the U.S.

•Kid Lucky, an MC in New York, uses Skype to jam with beatboxer Zede in Switzerland.

•VeeSee TV is a British Web-based TV service airing news and other programs tailored to deaf viewers, using British Sign Language (BSL). Via Web cams, viewers chat freely on the channel's Web site in their native sign languages.

•Parents use Skype as a baby-monitoring application by keeping the Skype channel open on a laptop placed in the baby's room while they are working on their computer in another room.

•Customers are starting to use Skype to call help desks and customer service departments so that, if they receive poor service, they can record the calls using plug-in software that stores Skype conversations as audio files.

•Language schools are offering lessons with native teachers or tutors. A U.S. or European student learning Chinese, for example, can work directly with a teacher in Shanghai. The lessons come as a downloadable podcast, while conversations with the teacher happen over Skype.

Designed to Change

Needless to say, these are all uses of Skype, MSN, and similar services that the engineers who developed them never intended, and the marketers never foresaw.

There is a whole history of this type of adaptation, stretching back to Edison and Antonio Meucci and probably beyond. More recently, the inventors of the Internet and the developers of the Web didn't set off to create a network that would one day be used to connect avatars, stream videos, and book flights. It's a testament to the openness and flexibility of their inventions that these uses are possible.

This leads to a speculation: Successful communication technologies are those that are designed with this openness at their core, so that their real applications can be figured out not by the developers or the sellers, but by the actual users.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.