Do you Skype? If Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrm have their way, soon millions of people around the world will not only understand that inquiry but answer in the affirmative. The Swedish duo, who became (in)famous as two of the original programmers behind the peer-to-peer file sharing program Kazaa, are currently at work preparing the world for the first official, non-beta release of their new baby: an application that uses peer-to-peer technology to allow users to make phone calls over the Internet for free. They call it Skype, a nonsensical word they chose for its simplicity and catchiness.Though Skype is not even a finished product (the most recent release is beta version 0.94, released on October 30), it has already been downloaded more than 2.6 million times in just over two and a half months. For a little perspective, it took Kazaa-the most popular piece of downloaded software ever created-more than six months to reach that number of downloads. What’s more, Skype has achieved that download rate without any advertising. “Skype can change the way people think about communications,” says Jeff Kagan, an independent telecommunications analyst. “Skype is the Napster of the phone system.”
Skype began with a walk in the park. In June 2002, Friis and Zennstrm found themselves in a park in Copenhagen, Denmark, contemplating what to do next. Kazaa had been sold to Sharman Networks. But “we weren’t going to retire,” says 27-year-old Friis. So he and his partner (who is 37) began to hunt for a new project. They were looking specifically for industries ripe for a disruptive technology. “We wondered what we could do now, what would be big. We wanted to do something that could reach millions of people,” says Friis in a telephone interview from Stockholm. “During our discussions,” he adds, “we determined that telephony was extremely well suited for a peer-to-peer disruption.” The key metrics? “It was centralized and expensive,” says Friis, referring to the fact that the telecommunications industry is controlled by large, profit-seeking companies. Skype bypasses those companies entirely.
Friis and Zennstrm researched and found that a technology for routing phone calls over data networks-called Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP)-was, after years of very limited use, finally taking hold. The surge in VoIP’s popularity stemmed chiefly from a rapid increase in the number of homes installing broadband, always-on Internet connections. The two programmers realized that the peer-to-peer infrastructure they used with Kazaa was well-suited to VoIP because it could scale cheaply (no central servers to purchase and maintain) and redundancies were built in: multiple users routed calls, so a conversation wouldn’t be interrupted if a user logged off when a call was being routed through his system. What’s more, because the routing would be done by users, Friis and Zennstrm wouldn’t have to purchase expensive infrastructure. They could therefore offer the basic service for free.