Revisiting Skype For Linux

Is Skype still the best VoIP client for Linux now that it’s owned by Microsoft?
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For many people such as myself, using Skype is a necessary evil. Those of us who work within offices that utilize Skype as their primary means of conferencing will have a very tough time convincing enterprise environments that open source alternatives are better.

I'm not saying it never happens, rather that once a means of communicating is setup, good luck adapting to something new. Sadly in some instances, this has meant relying on Skype.

For years before the Microsoft buyout of Skype, it was clear that the Skype team had little interest in pursuing updates for the Linux Skype client. The reasons why could best be left to one’s imagination. I suspect time, funding, and distribution differences all contributed to nothing happening. But to the end user, it left many of us trying to find usable alternatives.

Skype alternatives: a two-way challenge

Normally when a Linux enthusiast finds themselves facing a software challenge, they find ways to overcome it. Tweak some settings, look for an alternative application, and all other avenues are explored to get the needed software working properly. Unfortunately when it comes to software to be used on someone else's desktop, we have little control here.

Take, for example, my attempts to get Windows users to adopt to the non-Skype VoIP options, Ekiga and Jitsi. Since both applications run well on Windows, I figured this wouldn't be an issue.

Well, it seems I was wrong. Each time I've tried to get someone to run one of these applications, they bring up one undeniable fact _ who outside of hardcore Linux users actually use these apps? To run them, it would mean these users were running the applications for my sake only. The rest of their friends are on Skype.

No matter how much I want people to use the Skype alternatives, it's simply not happening outside of the Linux user space. Even worse, the applications we do have aren't that great to begin with.

Ekiga: needs commercial sponsorship

Without question one of the most frustrating Skype alternatives is known as Ekiga. Using protocols that are supportive of open standards, this little VoIP application should have been a Skype killer years ago. Despite its shortcoming of relying on dated third-party software on the OS X front, it offers useable clients for both Linux and Windows.

Unfortunately, any snow ball’s chance of mass adoption has died ever since Skype for Windows has continued adding on cool functionality like group video chat, screen-sharing and a smoother approach to dialing landlines. Even though Ekiga is able to sell credits so users can also dial out to landlines, the interface is so clunky that it's not going to win most people over. With regard to group video calls and screen-sharing, Ekiga doesn't appear to be entering this space anytime soon.

All of the negative stuff behind us, I feel very strongly that Ekiga is mature and with some cash to pay for active development, the software could easily take on Skype directly. Obviously, this means a retooling effort would be needed, perhaps taking the same approach as another cross platform VoIP application known as Jitsi. Unlike Ekiga, Jitsi will run on all three popular platforms.

Best Skype alternative: Jitsi

The very first time I tried Jitsi, I was instantly blown away at how one application was able to provide a Skype-like experience so smoothly, across all three popular platforms. The secret to this success is likely due to the Java core, along with other libraries that apparently translate well across each operating system. This was my go-to VoIP application when recommending a viable Skype alternative.

Sadly, as I mentioned previously, getting non-Linux users to care was challenging to impossible. In their minds, I should be using Skype to chat with them. What they failed to understand is that the version of Skype we had available wasn't as advanced as users had on other platforms. Skype for Linux was buggy, dated and needed to be put down for good. So this lead me into relying on Jitsi whenever possible.

Up until Ubuntu 11.10, Jitsi worked flawlessly. Even my HD webcam provided the crystal clear picture one would expect from a top-tier VoIP client. Now I should point out that as great as Jitsi is, it doesn't do everything that Skype for Windows can. The most notable missing feature missing was the multiple-person video conferencing. Nothing on the desktop for Linux, to my knowledge, offers this functionality.

But Jitsi does a great job with one-on-one video conferencing, desktop sharing, desktop streaming, file sharing, as well as support for countless networks/protocols. And like Skype and Ekiga, Jitsi also has the capability of calling POTS (plain old telephone service) phones when setup properly.

The downside of using Jitsi these days is that its performance on some distributions, such as Ubuntu 12.04, has been less than awesome. The biggest issue being that Jitsi runs slowly or in my case, not at all.

Despite these hurdles, my gut tells me that any viable alternative to Skype is going to come from the Jitsi camp. They have the corporate sponsorship and community support to pull it off. And it's a fairly active project. However, until they get everything completely ironed out, that leaves us with Skype.

Skype 4.0

As much as it pains me to say it, I still run Skype on my main PC. Going even deeper than that, I also updated the Linux Skype client to the latest 4.0, released by Microsoft.

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Tags: Linux, Microsoft, VoIP, Skype

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