Skype's distinction is that, for now at least, it is the easiest,
fastest and cheapest way for individual customers to begin using VoIP.
It works this way:
First, you download free software from skype.com. Skype runs on most
major operating systems, including Windows XP and 2000, Linux, Pocket
PC for portable devices and, as of this summer, Mac OS. On three of the
computers on which I installed it, it ran with no tweaking at all. On
the fourth, I had to change one setting for the sound card, following
easy instructions on the site.
While running, Skype sits in a little window, like an instant-messenger
program, and lets you to talk with other users in two ways. If the
other person has Skype installed, you can talk as long as you want,
free, and with sound quality that is startlingly better than that of a
normal phone connection. Over the years, I have learned to say "that's
'F' as in Frank" when spelling my last name on the phone, because
normal phone lines don't carry the frequencies that distinguish "F"
from "S." Listening to a conversation on Skype, by contrast, is like
listening to a radio program over streaming audio. The sound comes from
speakers that are built into most laptop computers or attached to most
You'll need a microphone. Most laptops come with nearly invisible but
quite effective tiny microphones embedded near the keyboard. (It may
look odd to be talking to your laptop while using Skype, but in the
cellphone age, we've all seen worse.) At either a desktop or a laptop
computer, you can use a separate microphone or, less awkwardly, a phone
handset or headset that plugs into a computer port. Skype sells
headsets for $15 and up. I got the cheapest model, which works fine.
You can also reach people who don't use Skype, through a new service
called SkypeOut. This allows you to dial nearly any cellular or
land-line telephone number in any country and talk. Though it isn't
free, it's really cheap. Skype's prices are in euros - its founders are
Scandinavian, the main programmers are Estonian and its headquarters
are in Luxembourg - and they average two or three American cents a
minute, at any time of day. With a credit card, you buy calling time in
units of 10 euros ($12.18), which are deducted automatically as you
I started with 10 euros. After my wife talked to her sister in Italy
for a half-hour and I made one quick call to the Philippines and five
more within the United States, we still had 9.10 euros left.
Another time, I spoke from Washington simultaneously with my son in
San Francisco and his business partner who was visiting Bangalore,
India. (Up to five parties can participate in a Skype conference call.)
All of us were at computers running Skype, so the conversation was
free. The sound quality was sharp; it was about like speaking in
person, and the connection had none of the satellite-bounce delay of
normal transoceanic phone calls. Skype also allows file transfers and
instant text messages during these computer-to-computer sessions.