Emerging Technology

BEST OF THE WEB: How Skype got off the ground – it’s stranger than you think

Patrick Stafford /

Skype, the VoIP service used by millions of computer users around the world, is 10 years old this month.

It’s fair to say the software changed how we view voice conversations. The company is responsible for a significant portion of international voice traffic, and has effectively reduced expectations about paying for voice services.

Why pay for a phone call when you can just Skype? The sound quality is usually better, anyway.

Over at Ars Technica, the publication has an extensive piece on the company’s history and its success – and it may not be the story you expect.

As the piece describes, back in 2000, a Swede and a Dane, Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, respectively, worked on the file-sharing service Kazaa were they met and dodged some court battles together.

It was there they developed a type of P2P technology they hadn’t seen before. After Kazaa’s legal troubles, the pair looked for a new outlet for the tech. They came up with Skype.

But as the piece correctly reminds us – it was an odd idea at the time.

Talking to a computer felt silly at the time—as silly as talking to your hand did when mobile phones first appeared. Feedback on the initial version of Skype was not exactly enthusiastic. The sound was glitchy, for instance. But when testers realized that they could now speak via computer to people on the other side of the world for free, attitudes changes.

Zennström and Friis never wanted to be big-time pirates or a thorn in anyone’s side. However, Kazaa turned out to have done Skype a huge service. The Robin Hoods of the music and film business now pounced on the telecoms that were making hundreds of millions a year by selling long-distance calls.

Soon, the venture capital money came rolling in. And for a while, everything was great. The company was casual – it even had a wading pool in the board office. But the company began to grow, with as many as 10 employees joining every week.

The screening system was simple and very much the product of Toivo Annus. Pass the test assignment? You’re hired! Wage negotiations were often redundant—if you deserved to be in the company, you’d be paid what you needed.

Here’s how casual the corporate culture was: in Silicon Valley, an American named Eileen Burbidge ditched Yahoo to come and work for Skype. She worked for free in London for eight months (she got paid later, though) and said that Skype was “the best time of her life”.

We all know how the story ends – the company was sold to eBay for a massive $2.6 billion in September of 2005, making the founders rich.

The rest of the piece is a must-read, given how popular VoIP services are. If you’re a Skype user, then this is something you should read up on.

“Headphones are the new cubicle”

Fast-moving companies are used to sharing work areas in co-op spaces. But as this New York Times piece chronicles, a new rental company in San Francisco is taking the concept even further.

RocketSpace, the office rental company started in 2010, has enough perks to welcome tenants like free beer and high-speed internet access. But its founder Duncan Logan has some extra requirements – and you won’t like them if you’re keen on privacy.

Tenants often share desks with other companies.

Mr. Logan, 41, works hard at making sure renters have credibility by checking their backers and work histories. He cultivates relationships with venture capitalists and has researchers looking for the next hot thing.

There are lots of free Jolly Rancher candies and boxes of coconut water, but renting here takes money, well-known backers and a personal track record at hot firms. “From the start, we’ve vetted which companies would be here,” he said.

This isn’t a small town company, either – firms like Uber, Spotify and Zappos have used office space through RocketSpace.

Using your heartbeat as a password

Using your heartbeat as a password sounds like a strange idea. But given the practice of using some random characters to protect your data is becoming more and more outdated, it’s not necessarily so out there.

A new company called Nymi is hoping to work by identifying sensors that monitor their heartbeat, and then connect that rhythm to electronic devices.

Sounds weird? Definitely. But you can read about it over at Mashable and make up your own mind.

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Patrick Stafford

Patrick Stafford is a freelance journalist and a former deputy editor of SmartCompany.

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