Four ways Skype has changed the way the world communicates

Anyone that's spent lots of time online over the past decade knows a few immutable facts: there's always new applications to learn, you're always in a race to upgrade your digital devices, and Skype is truly a beautiful thing.

Ever since two Estonian software developers released the free Internet-based phone service a decade ago, Skype's brought video calling — once thought to be relegated to the obscure worlds of futuristic sci-fi films — to the masses in a big, big way.

The world has taken to Skype in such dramatic fashion that the service revealed this week that its users now spend an astonishing two billion minutes each day communicating with one another on its VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) calling and messaging service.

That's a huge number, all the more incredible given that Skype has become a go-to for more than just video calls. The service continues to expand its range of offerings, and with Microsoft planning to phase out its Windows Live Messenger service in favour of Skype, there's no telling how big the service may get in the years ahead.

So how has Skype changed our world? How did one simple idea — face-to-face communication over the Internet — become such a potent, indispensable service?

Skype's made old boundaries far less relevant to Internet users

There's no doubt that the most obvious way Skype's changed our world is how it's essentially flattened borders, boundaries and time zones when it comes to just talking to each other.

Families, lovers and friends can chat now with ease and in a far more personal, affecting way than they ever did before. It's made the concept of face-time (tip of the hat to Apple) a far more important characteristic of the digital age, opening up lifelines of communication to far-flung people and even helping to 'humanize' the Internet.

One great example of how groups of people have benefited from using Skype? Senior citizens, who can now chat more easily with family members through the service.

Governments now both respect and fear the disruptive power of Skype

People committed to political change have always looked to new technologies to spread their messages out into the world. It's one of the reasons why Skype has become so popular; the service claims that it is a 'secure communications' network that allows people to talk to each other without fear of government monitoring. Naturally, this has made the service an attractive tool for political dissidents.

Of course, this has lead to governments pushing back on services like Skype: the Egyptian government is in the process of considering outright bans of services such as Skype without the government's ability to conduct surveillance on the services.

Other countries such as China even have a special eavesdropping-enabled version of Skype, in which the software has a built-in surveillance blacklist that scans messages sent between users for specific words and phrases.

Yet all of this pales in comparison to news that Skype has, ever since being bought by Microsoft, become more lenient in co-operating with law enforcement to enable new methods of digital monitoring.

All of these issues point to one clear fact: Skype's become a powerful tool for more than just chatting with friends. It's now an essential conduit to political action online.

Skype's opened up brand new windows of creativity

It's undeniable that video calling has changed more than just the way people talk to each other; Skype's also changed what we say to each other and for what purpose.

Music is the most obvious angle for Skype. The service itself has been smart enough to latch onto people's needs to express themselves online that it's even signed up musical acts for users to 'perform' with via video calls, called Say It With Skype.

With people's bandwidth only increasing year over year, there's increasing possibilities for people to use Skype for big creative projects. One great example is the Spring Scream Music Festival, where a Skype-stage, called the 'Bandwidth stage,' will be set up during the five-day festival so music lovers can enjoy live performances from anywhere in the world.

Skype's disrupted all kinds of traditional business models

Let's be honest: the biggest lure for users to Skype has been the fact the service is free in its basic model. Free video calling has definitely changed the way we talk to each other, but it's also made a real dent in traditional telcos' bottom lines.

Danish telecommunications firms have made threats to block applications like Skype in the past in order to offset network costs. In Canada, no such threats have been made by Bell or Rogers to block such applications, but it's hardly a secret that both companies have been gently encouraging consumers to shift over to their own VoIP services (which, of course, you'd pay for).

Skype's also been instrumental in a cultural shift of people embracing more peer-to-peer based services, bypassing traditional economic gatekeepers. One example of this is TransferWire — a service developed by the people who built Skype, incidentally — that skips over banks to transfer money abroad.

Of course, all this economic freedom does have a seedier side: because of the semi-secure nature of Skype, it's allowed for criminal activity to sometimes occur through the service. This rang true with the news this week that a spam message campaign on Skype spreads a piece of malware with the ability to steal money from a person's Bitcoin digital wallet.

Yet in spite of the drawbacks, it's patently clear that Skype's helped to change the world in a lot of ways. Who knows what the next ten years will bring.

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