Will Microsoft Neuter Skype’s Technological Advantage?

Skype... In cuffs!The controlled leaks rumors turned out to be true. Microsoft is buying Skype for $8.5 billion.

As a regular user of Skype (John F. Braun and I rely on it for producing the our Mac Geek Gab podcast, and I use it daily to maintain regular contact with distant staffers), this scares the bejeezus out of me, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

The Mac version, despite always having had a non-standard interface, works extremely well, and basically does away with any problems relating to firewalls or other network anomalies. As a test, I once had a successful video call with someone sitting in the boardroom of a very large, Fortune 100 company. The network engineers said it couldn’t be done, the policies said it shouldn’t be done, Skype got it done. There was no fanfare, nothing out of the ordinary. The other person placed the Skype call, and I answered. No problem. In short, Skype simply works and it’s that technology which makes Skype so reliable.

It’s not that I have a regular need to thwart corporate firewalls, but I do often have to chat with folks on the other side of strangely-configured home routers. Skype makes it so that I don’t have to walk anyone through any port mapping, UPnP enabling, or anything of the sort. We simply place the call… and it works  (if only iChat were as good!). What happens to that now that Microsoft ultimately controls Skype’s direction? Ars Technica’s Peter Bright eloquently stated the problem here in his article from last night about this:

The Skype client itself is written almost as if it were a piece of malware, using complex obfuscation and anti-reverse engineering techniques, and it would be disquieting for Microsoft to release something that behaved in such a shady way; at the very least, the client would surely have to be rewritten to avoid the obfuscation and outright hostility to managed networks that Skype currently has.

If Microsoft owning Skype forces them to rewrite the underlying technology to better fit the corporate world, I fear Skype may suffer from the same issues with routers and firewalls that we have in every other piece of audio or video chat software. I certainly don’t want that. I just want Skype to work.