Having suspended disbelief for as long as I could, my ability to take Microsoft at their word over Skype was shattered yesterday on hearing the announcement by Digium, sponsors of the widely-used Asterisk VoIP project, that they have been told they can no longer sell their Asterisk-Skype interaction module after July 26. That means it will become impossible for this VoIP PBX to connect to Skype.
In one move, we have illustrated the risk of a hybrid open source model, the danger of dependency on a proprietary system, a proof that Microsoft still can't be trusted with open source and an impetus to open source innovation. All in one announcement.
I've written before about Skype, explaining that my chief problem with it is the lack of software freedom and the consequent lack of business flexibility that causes. This news takes away the one crucial compromise that existed to soften that problem and clearly pits Microsoft-owned Skype against open standards and open source in a way that the previous owners implied but never made real. You never really had the freedom to leave; now it's been made clear.
The proprietary interests hold all the cards here. The community can't just "rehost and carry on" because the crucial add-on is proprietary. Even if wasn't, the protocol it's implementing is proprietary and subject to arbitrary change - very likely to happen if anyone attempts to reverse-engineer the interface and protocol. Asterisk may be open source, but if you're dependent on this interface to connect with your customers on Skype you've no freedoms - that's the way "open core" works.
I'm regularly told (especially by Microsoft staff) that Microsoft has changed and now no longer regards open source as a cancer on the software industry (even if they do still have the CEO who said it). Indeed, soothing words were said around the Skype acquisition:
"We will continue to support non-Microsoft platforms because it's fundamental to the value proposition of communications," Ballmer told the press. "We love Windows and we love Windows Phone and the Xbox, and we are going to do all of the work together to optimize these ... but fundamental to the value proposition of communications is to reach everybody whether they are on your device or not. In fact it will be one of our competitive advantages," he said.
But the crucial disconnect Microsoft still hasn't come to terms with is the understanding that accepting open source means accepting the environment of "co-opetition" it implies. "Open source" is not a synonym for "disinterested hobbyists". Living open source communities (as opposed to open-source-centric user groups) will always involve multiple corporations acting independently rather than "being monetised" by one company.
Microsoft still has a tendency to make arrangements intended to prevent commercial activity from which they don't benefit or - horror - which might be considered competitive with one of their activities. I'll not consider them a change corporation until they've a track record of changed behaviour in this ccrucial area. Attempting to prevent Asterisk from connecting to Skype as their first action shows that hasn't happened yet. I hope I'm wrong and that Microsoft is actually shutting down this commercial relationship because they plan to open source everything. But I'm not holding my breath.
So what can we do? We can't carry on with the existing code, it makes no sense to re-implement it and the chance that Microsoft is actually planning to open up here seems slim. In the short term things are pretty tough. But this is a new impetus to take action collectively and build alternatives. The standards in this area - SIP and XMPP - are excellent, and there are wonderful open source projects like Jitsi that do everything Skype does.
This is not a technology problem. What's made Skype so universal is a combination of technology that just works, competition that just doesn't and global network effects. Globally, it's time for initiatives like Freedom Box to get real and build on new channels like app stores and Android to create a new network effect. Google has the technology too, in their Voice product, if only they could shake off their fixation with the US market and look at the global opportunity.
Whoever takes the initiative, it needs to make internet telephony as easy as knowing the other person's e-mail address, completely independently of the service and system they are using - just like a phone number, only for the internet age. Maybe, just maybe, Microsoft and Skype are doing us all a favour here, cutting the lifeline so we are forced to evolve.