Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Replacing Skype with SIP in a few easy steps

I've been a Skype user for a long time. For about 4 years, I've been loyal to Skype and had no real reason to move away from the service. It worked well, it was fairly reliable, and it was a pretty much an enjoyable experience. But recent events have forced me to take a hard look at my need for Skype and, if it could be replaced easily and, better still, with open source software.

The first event that made me take a hard look at Skype was finding out (late) that they had granted the Chinese government eavesdropping privileges on some of their users. While Skype might say this was 'following the law of the countries they operate in', I see it as an absolute violation of privacy. The second, and a bit less compelling, was my total migration to Linux and the fact that Skype just doesn't work well there at all.

So off I went looking for a solution. My requirements were pretty simple:

1. It had to be SIP compliant
2. It had to allow incoming phone to PC calls
3. It had to allow outbound PC to PC and PC to Phone calls
4. It had to be open source or from a company that respects openness
5. It had to be cheap.
6. Google Voice needed to work with it

I first looked at Gizmo5. I've always liked Gizmo and I really like what Google has done with it since they bought the company in 2009. Still, Gizmo has never really worked well for me so I wanted to avoid using their software if possible. Then I remembered Gizmo5 was a SIP service AND that Google Voice allowed me to forward inbound calls to my free Gizmo number.

So, for the first time in almost a year, I logged into my Gizmo5 account and grabbed my free SIP phone number. I then logged into Google Voice and added that number to my account and told the service to forward calls to it whenever they arrived. Easy as pie.

Since I'd been using the Ekiga SIP softphone for a while on my Linux desktop, I figured I'd stick with something I knew and went to the website and downloaded and installed the software. Next, I went into Ekiga and set up a new SIP service using the SIP information that Gizmo5 provided to me on their website. Within 3 minutes, I had my cell phone in hand, placing a test call to my Google Voice number and seeing it ring on my desktop Ekiga SIP Phone!

It was amazingly easy to replace Skype inbound calling with Ekiga and SIP but now I needed to allow outbound calling as well.  As luck would have it, both Ekiga and Gizmo5 allow outbound calling at extremely competitive rates - as cheap or cheaper than Skype. Ekiga charges around $0.02 a minute to call the USA while Gizmo5 comes in around $0.01 per minute for the same service. It ain't free, but it's pretty darn close. In the end, I'll probably go with Gizmo's calling service since it's the cheapest. Technically, I could forgo outbound calling entirely and just use Google Voice. But I like the idea of doing everything from one application and who can argue with $0.01?

Lastly, I faced my biggest hurdle in migrating from Skype: contacts. While it's really nice to think I can do all this cool stuff using the software I've chosen, the fact remains that most of my contacts are on Skype. Expecting them to all move to SIP is unreasonable so I have only two options:

1. Run a dual Skype/Ekiga desktop switching to the right client for my needs at the moment.
2. Convince my contacts to move to SIP
3. Wait for Skype to allow inbound SIP calling to Skype contacts.

I'm hopeful that option 3 is well on the way to becoming a reality since Skype is working on attracting business customers, many of whom are very reliant on SIP for their internal phone networks. Option 1 will probably be my choice for now since I'm not likely to convince many people to jump through the hurdles I did tonight. Still, it's a nice thought and I am nearly completely free of proprietary Skype.

As you can see, setting this up really wasn't hard at all. All you need are a few pieces from different places and you can easily move almost totally away from Skype.

Ah, the smell of freedom.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Does Windows need a software center like Unbutu has?

Finding software in Ubuntu Linux is a pretty painless task. There are basically two main ways people do it (with a few others that are harder and seldom used): through the new Software Center or through the Synaptic Package Manager. Whether users choose to use the Software Center or Synaptic, finding and installing software is as painless as clicking the program, searching for a term, and double clicking to install. Uninstalling is just as easy.

The same process on Microsoft Windows, by comparison, can be much more complex. Users have an infinite amount of sources for software from retail outlets to niche online stores, competing download sites, and even personal sites where software created by the site owner is hosted for download.  Sometimes, just finding the software is more than half the battle, then there's installing and uninstalling it which can be an even bigger pain in the ass.

This problem doesn't just plague Windows though. Mac has had the same problem for a long time until, recently, Apple decided to do something about it by opening a desktop app store similar to the one they run for the iPhone and iPad devices. Brilliant idea! Allow users an infinite choice of free and paid software applications, but consolidate their location from multiple sites down to a single one. Regardless of what you might think of Steve Jobs and his need for iron fisted, white knuckled, control of Apple users, the idea of having a single place to go for all your software is very attractive. Ubuntu is seeing huge success with the Software Center and Apple has seen an extremely positive response to their announcement of an desktop app store.

Where is Microsoft? Why are they not feverishly working on a similar thing for Windows users? Not only is an in OS app store a great win for the user experience, but it's a fantastic way for a company to generate additional revenue by taking a cut of every app sold in the marketplace. Microsoft has seen solid success with the Windows Phone Marketplace; why have they not extended the technology to the desktop? It would be very easy. Just add it to Windows 7 as an additional program or even integrate it with the built in search functionality. It's something that could be deployed in a matter of weeks and Microsoft could easily leverage existing technology to make this a stellar experience for Windows users.

An in-OS app store makes sense from any angle you look at it: users win, developers win, Microsoft wins, everyone is happy. There's no compelling reason for the company not to jump on this idea like a hungry dog running to a bowl of fresh food. This is their chance to be innovative, to be an aggressive mover in the user space, to really push the user experience forward.

If they wait much longer, it won't matter. Everyone else will have an app store and, once again, Microsoft will show up late to the party with their homely cousin Betty as their date.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Is Ubuntu slowly shutting out older hardware?

A few weeks ago, Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth announced that the company was abandoning the popular GNOME desktop in favor of its own Unity solution.  Just as the dust from that announcement was starting to settle, Shuttleworth dropped another bomb on the Linux community in a blog post yesterday announcing Ubuntu's imminent move away from the X.org display server to upstart Wayland.

Display servers, as the name implies, are responsible for rendering what you see on your screen, including the desktop itself.  While X.org has long been a standard in the Linux/Unix world, Wayland offers some tantalizing new possibilities as to what can be done on the desktop. By combining Wayland and Unity and abandoning X and GNOME, Ubuntu will be able to offer the excitingly rich user experience to their users that users of other operating systems have enjoyed for years.

But that new experience could come at a cost to both Ubuntu users and Canonical itself.

By combining Unity and Wayland, Canonical is, in one huge swoop, cutting free a fairly large group of users who use graphics cards that can't handle the type of technology, called OpenGL, on which these two systems heavily rely. Most affected are users of laptop computers where graphics technology often lags several years behind the desktop counterparts, but many desktop users who use older hardware, or anything with nVidia or ATI chipsets, could well find themselves out in the cold as well.

Personally, I'm torn about this issue. While I understand that Canonical is a for-profit company who must survive and that the changes they're making to Ubuntu are moving it forward into a more polished and commercial place, I find it somewhat frustrating that the company has made several rapid fire decisions that will affect such a large group of users within six months to a year or two.

One of the beautiful things about Linux is that it can be used to give life to old hardware. Laptop and desktop computers that couldn't even dream of running Windows Vista or Windows 7 can usually happily run Linux and some can even provide a desktop effects environment that rivals or surpasses Microsoft's offerings. This move, I fear, is going to change that and many users of older hardware, myself included, will be forced to either purchase new gear or leave Ubuntu for something else, like Linux Mint or Fedora.

There is a bright point in this story though: while Ubuntu will be moving away from GNOME and to Unity with their April 2011 release, the move to Wayland will be much more gradual. Wayland is still a young project with a long way to go before it is even a minor contender to X and that's something Shuttleworth acknowledged in yesterdays blog post about the move. The move might take four to five years or, depending on Wayland's progress, it might never happen (unlikely). Eventually, though, we're going to see Ubuntu move away from X.org and towards what could be an exciting new display server, if your hardware can support it.

Lastly, I find it quite exciting that Canonical is pushing the envelope so hard in improving the Linux user experience. We've focused on everything else to the degree that Linux, and particularly Ubuntu, is a fully usable and advanced system able to compete with both Mac and Windows toe to toe. The only thing missing by some accounts is software and graphics. In my opinion, while this could be a double edge sword, this takes a step in the right direction in both of those areas.

My money is on the long term success of Unity and Wayland. It's exciting, it's sexy, it offers a lot of possibilities. I guess we'll just wait and see...