Skype purchase highlights a weakness in "free enough" philosophy

Linux users now depend on Microsoft for Skype: Oops

If you're a Linux and heavy Skype user, the announcement that Microsoft is purchasing Skype no doubt sent shivers down your spine. You can relax, though: Steve Ballmer says everything will be OK. Reassuring, right?

Ballmer has assured us that Microsoft will continue to provide Skype for "operating systems and devices not sold by Microsoft," though I'm not sure that explicitly includes Linux. Let's assume for a moment that it does include Linux, though — this is an obvious gap for free software nonetheless.

While you can find free software VoIP solutions for Linux, none of them measure up to Skype where it matters — ease of use, features, and adoption. It's not for lack of software — we have quite a few clients and server stacks for VoIP on Linux. But none of the offerings provide a complete stack that offers an easy "sign up and go" experience like Skype.

And that's a problem for Linux users if Microsoft changes its mind on supporting Linux. For some users, it could be a major problem — if you're making a lot of calls overseas, for example. Losing Linux support for Skype would put Linux users in a bind of scrambling for a new solution.

There have been efforts to replace Skype with FOSS solutions, but none of them have gotten much traction or had much of a sense of urgency from the larger community. Why use an inferior service, even temporarily, if a free-as-in-beer offering exists? Why spend time on promoting or contributing to a project like Linphone or Twinkle when most of your contacts aren't on Linux — ad not easy to switch to alternatives?

The Skype purchase shows why — if you're depending on a single source for your software/service, you could be subject to this sort of disruption at any time.

If you're not a Linux user, you may be thinking this doesn't apply to you. But a quick glance at Microsoft's policy on Internet Explorer 9 shows that's not the case. Specifically, if you're one of the hundreds of millions of people still using Microsoft Windows XP, there's no IE9 for you. Right now, Skype supports Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7. It's not much of a stretch to see Microsoft dropping support for XP on Skype very soon.

Maybe Linux is included in Ballmer's "other platforms," and maybe it's not. Either way, it's an uncomfortable position to be in, depending on a company to support a platform it doesn't really like.

It's also a good example why "free as in beer," isn't good enough — even if you're not particularly religious about Free Software.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.