The recent announcement of Skype turning quote-unquote open source has me twirling a finger with delicious glee. It's not that I dislike Skype. And it's not that I'm about to get into one of my 1,500-word debates on the differences between the definition of "free" and "open-source," I promise. This is nevertheless an important premise of Skype's entire move, as some Internet commenters are crying foul that Skype is only half-opening its popular application to the crowd. The GUI code will be yours to play with as you please. The underlying Skype protocol... nope!
To them I say: Duh.
I don't want to put words where they don't exist, but I'm willing to bet that Skype's sudden shift toward open-source waters has more to do with applying a giant, universal band-aid to staggered Linux development. It's not quite an altruistic gift to the community so much as it is a package and a bow with the phrase, "you fix it" written on the label. And that's fine. Let the community create the functional GUIs for Skype. It would be suicide for the company to release its heavily encrypted voice protocols for common use.
So what, then, is Skype up to?
Linux isn't just for geeks in the basement anymore. The open-source operating system powers an innumerable amount of devices, including super-small netbook PCs, equally small tablet PCs, mobile phones, et cetera. While opening up the Linux GUI still requires the underlying architecture of the Skype client in order to have any semblance of functionality, this is at least a first step toward smoothing the integration of Skype into Linux-based devices of all shapes and sizes. Developers could freely embed the Skype client and skin it to match the look and feel of a particular device--surely a boon versus, say, waiting for Skype to come into the app center of-sorts for each and every permutation of product.
And we now venture into the realm of the hypothetical. Imagine, if you will, that Skype's opening of the Linux GUI is but the first step in a gradual elimination of the Skype Client as a whole. Sure, this downloadable application would still exist for those that care to use it, but what if Skype was looking to offload the client's functionality into any software platform that wants to take it? Skype would still control the underlying protocol (depending on how the legal battle sorts out), yet this "naked GUI" approach, as it's been dubbed, would allow one to perform the same call functions using an application like Pidgin, for example.
For consumers, this approach would be a marvelous way to integrate Skype into existing "favorite applications." But there's also a fairly large flaw surrounding this plan. Skype would need to come up with some ingenious way to keep its services relevant, because you can bet that I'd want to add more VoIP services than just Skype to my communications app of choice. I'd love to be able to receive calls on Skype and call other people for free on Skype... but if there was a way to use a cheaper provider for outbound calls, I'd cast off the Skype experience like a boot on the end of a fishing line. Integration with third-party apps is truly a double-edged sword.
Skype as a Service?
Suppose Skype opts for option two and extends its service into third-party applications. What if this is not a measure of altruism, but rather, an investment? With countless developers around the world working on their own programming variants that somehow tie back into the underlying Skype protocol, what's to stop this mass intelligence from coming up with The Next Best Thing for Skype integration?
Both TechCrunch and I envision a future where even the desktop client has been rendered useless by the Skype service. No more installations; no more new applications to load up. Skype would be as permanent and unobtrusive a fixture in your operating system as Windows Contacts. Or, better still, you'd be able to dial up Skype directly through a Web application. As soon as you were to click on a phone number, the call would launch right in your browser of choice.
These are all far-off ideas. Some could even be ideas that only exist in a dreamy haze. Skype is promising a "larger offering" to come centered on its open-source Linux GUI announcement. When that big thing happens, do give me a ring.
David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. Befriend him on Twitter, especially if you have an awesome app or game you're dying to recommend!