October 16, 2009 |
Earlier today I’ve read a very interesting post on a Russian-language geeky blog community that has drawn my attention to the notion of SuperNodes in Skype – something I never cared to investigate in Skype. And the most important question that I now have is how users are supposed to pay for their free applications and if they are willing to (of course there’s no denying to the fact that we do pay in some manner because there’s no such thing as free lunch, of course).
For those of you who are not aware of the notion of a SuperNode, this is the basis of peer to peer technology behind Skype: those Skype users with a good connection can turn into SuperNodes to provide traffic to other users of Skype who don’t happen to enjoy such an advantage. And the entire network works on some users making it possible for other users to chat and talk – and this is exactly what makes it possible for us to chat and talk for free.
The post that I’ve read today described exactly how a computer user can forbid Skype from using his or her computer as a SuperNode – and keep all the traffic to themselves. There are no configuration options in Skype itself that could allow users to decide if they want to act as a SuperNode or not: system registry needs to be edited in Windows to make the trick of forbidding Skype from using your computer as a SuperNode.
It is no wonder that numerous geeks that are subscribed to this blog have rushed to stop other users from using their traffic. But there were other voices that tried to persuade everyone that Skype itself is free – and so we should be generous enough to share some traffic with others to let the entire network work (especially since bandwidth usage of a SuperNode is told to be approximately 15 KBPS which is hardly too difficult to handle).
Of course it is obvious that people do have to pay for use of the free features of Skype (which are probably the most widely used ones, like free PC to PC calls) in some manner – be it a small portion of your bandwidth usage or the money that you regularly pay for premium services. But this is not what matters the most. To me the most important thing is how you let your users decide if they want to pay or not – and in what form.
I myself tend to think that no matter what you want your users to do, you should at least inform them of that or – better still – properly ask for their authorization to do so. And in this particular case I am not quite happy about Skype using my computer without my knowledge – even though I would have certainly let them do so anyway if they ever asked.
I guess the best example here is Panda cloud antivirus (many of my friends know that I am a huge fan of the app). Of course Panda is probably too simple for real geeks and those of my friends who claim Panda is too “girly” are right but I guess I am entitled to use a girly antivirus anyway given my own gender – especially since I’ve always found it a real pain to configure something in more complex antivirus solutions because I was afraid I would do something accidentally that will leave me unprotected.
This is what Panda cloud antivirus eliminates entirely as the number of settings available for the solution is so limited that you basically can do nothing wrong at all. Those of us who remember Panda launching their first of a kind cloud antivirus may remember their explanation of the free nature of the application: in exchange for letting us use the solution for free, they ask us to help them protect us (and their paying customers) better in the future by providing them with an opportunity of grabbing information on the new malware right from our computers.
Of course it may feel like something of a vulnerability to many but I certainly have more reasons not to trust Microsoft and their approach to computer security – and still I work with their software – so I decided it would not hurt helping Panda out. The interesting part is that I could have the antivirus for free even if I decided to close my computer to them so it was my free will to do what I choose – and I’ve made my choice.
Unfortunately this is not how Skype behaves. For example, I consider myself to be quite an advanced computer user as I probably know more about various apps running on my desktop and in my browser than an ordinary user. But still I was not aware about Skype ability to use some computers in the network as SuperNodes – simply because the information never crossed my attention zone. So I have a feeling that the vast majority of those millions upon millions of happy Skype users don’t realize this thing exists at all – and could be very surprised if someone on TV (Oprah?) chose to explain the idea to them.
And to some users there may be plenty of negative aspects in this approach as they don’t realize what is going on behind the scenes. It is quite obvious that such a behavior is even more dubious in countries where many users are still on limited bandwidth plans because even the tiny bandwidth usage by Skype may lead to extra expenses for users who will probably not want to face such expenses at all. And this means that Skype could actually be not free to such users – even without them realizing it and with Skype heavily advertising their totally free calls.
What I see as a perfectly fair arrangement for Skype is actually adding an option to let users decide themselves if they want to share their bandwidth with other users or not. Those who don’t want to, could face certain limitations (like only having a limited number of call minutes per month) or be offered premium accounts where they would need to pay some monthly fee or certain per-minute fee for their talks.
This could have let everyone decide if we are willing to pay with our money or with our traffic – and even if it could hardly increase Skype revenue significantly, it could at least be viewed as a fair arrangement and people would at least stop asking question about how phone calls could be free at all.
And I think every web service owner should always try to explain to their users that some price always exists when an application is free. Your users should understand how exactly they pay – by watching ads or sharing their bandwidth or whatever else it may be – because otherwise some of the more geeky users will eventually figure everything out and will start asking questions. And you will hardly want to answer such questions.