Skype: How the online chat revolution changed lives

 
Ruby and Ivy Carr Ruby Carr's daughter Ivy took part in her first video call within minutes of her birth

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It's been 10 years since Skype came on to the scene.

The internet chat service wasn't the first to allow people to make voice calls over the internet.

But by allowing the public to make computer-to-computer calls free and using peer-to-peer technology - which meant that connections improved the more people who used it - it helped popularise the concept.

Today Voip (voice over internet protocol) and video chats are something many of us take for granted. And Skype faces competition from a multitude of rivals, including Google Hangouts, Apple's Facetime, Blackberry's BBM, Tango and Viber.

But on this anniversary it's perhaps worth reflecting on the impact the technologies can have on people's lives.

Take the example of Lu Yang and Hamid Sirhan. When the London-based newlyweds decided to have a baby, Lu knew that her Chinese parents would not be able to come and visit them often.

As it turned out, her mother and father were not even able to make the journey when her daughter Yasmina was first brought home.

Skype Skype did not offer video calls until just over two years after its launch

But video calls made it possible to introduce the baby to her grandma and grandpa in Beijing.

"We talk to them every single evening, and it is the only way for them to see their granddaughter grow," says Yang.

"They can't afford to come to London at the moment, and we can't afford to go there, either."

Yang adds that she has also used the technology for much more serious pursuits. Until recently, she worked for a London-based charity that helps persecuted freelance journalists worldwide.

"It's the only and unique way to get in touch with certain journalists from countries with repressive regimes, such as some former Soviet states," says Yang.

"They simply can get killed if they try to get in touch with us using the phone, to discuss the stories they are working on, which are usually stories about corruption and crime."

Robot doctors

The facility has also been a boon for doctors.

For example, Dr Maneesh Batra from Seattle Children's Hospital in the US routinely calls Kiwoko Hospital in rural Uganda to offer his expertise to local doctors.

He says that using video makes it easier to explain complicated procedures than trying to do so by email or voice alone.

RP-Vita The RP-Vita robot incorporates video conferencing tech to help doctors visit patients

A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US is trying to take this a step further with a spin-off company, iRobot.

They have developed a regulator-approved machine that glides through hospital corridors letting medics call in on patients based in other buildings. To let them do this the robot features a 15in (38cm) screen, microphone and built-in camera which connect to InTouch Health's video-conferencing system.

"There's an ageing population, especially in developed countries, there's a crisis around the cost of providing healthcare and we have robotics technology - so you put all of those things together and you come out with solutions," Jeff Beck, the firm's chief operating officer, tells the BBC.

Of course, older patients might feel a little less positive about the idea of their doctor "teleporting" into consultations via such machines.

Split-screen photos

Technology giant Microsoft bought Skype in 2011 for $8.5bn (£.5.5bn), and as you might expect, Microsoft's corporate vice-president for Skype, Mark Gillett, has his own favourite story about how the technology can "bridge people's lives together".

Microsoft Skype takeover Microsoft bought Skype in 2011 and has added the tech to its Outlook email service

"About a year ago I saw a couple of portraits where people had hooked up their laptops to a projector and [used the software] to bring a family together," he tells the BBC.

"It was a split family in North Korea and China. They could never otherwise have been together. It was such a visual and graphic representation of the power of video to just dissolve geography."

But for all its benefits, there is also a dark side to the rise of video-conferencing tech.

Earlier this week an Australian military cadet was found guilty of using Skype to stream footage of himself having sex with a female colleague to a room of other students, without telling the victim of his plan.

The incident has prompted the government to order a review into wider allegations of sexism in the military.

There have also been numerous instances of people using such programs to persuade juveniles to strike suggestive poses and then using recordings of the footage to blackmail them into doing worse.

"The fact that people can use this type of software while making themselves difficult to trace means they that it can be abused, sometimes very badly indeed," warns John Carr, secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety.

Google Hangouts and Facetime Google Hangouts and Apple's Facetime are two popular alternatives to Skype

"It's why parents need to talk to their children about being careful about who they agree to speak to."

However, he adds that on a personal level video-conferencing recently came "to the rescue" of his family.

His pregnant daughter's Cambodian partner had been refused access to the UK by the immigration authorities shortly before the birth, which the parents-to-be had wanted to happen in England.

As a result he was unable to be present on the big day - but a tablet computer helped him avoid being completely shut out of the event.

"The iPad was running Skype within a minute of Ivy arriving, while she was still attached to the umbilical cord and resting on her smiling but exhausted mother's chest," Mr Carr recalls.

"Some of the first sounds Ivy heard were of her dad speaking to her in Khmer. The battle-hardened midwives all blubbed."

 

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 73.

    MS shouldn't have even had the encryption keys to give to the NSA. Or maybe they didn't and jsut programmed back doors for the NSA and every other hacker to use.

    Some of the decent communication companies have stopped their services rather than comply with USA spying laws. Microsoft choose not to.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 72.

    Wish that I could use Skype.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 71.

    Skype may be one of the few really positive developments in the computer world. By which I mean that it has few drawbacks.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 70.

    My late wife was American and although we met on a dating site we soon switched to webcams so we could see one another, working our way through Yahoo Messenger, Skype and MSN / Live.

    The latter was by far the best quality and most reliable until M$ ditched it for Skype, which I found glitchy and erratic. Now I use Facebook Messenger to keep in touch with her Mom and Vonage for cheap UK-US calls.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 69.

    @64

    What has your comment got to do with Skype ?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 68.

    @42 Never believe everything the Guardian posts, it got from stolen papers. The NSA will like other nations security agencies, will at times with due cause, court order an electronic communication. Just posting a reply on this website, the data is held on a server, like all forms of comms nothing can be 100% private. Its also not just MSFT that may give up data, but Google, Yahoo, Apple, etc

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 67.

    I live in the UK and my daughter lives in the US. Skype is a godsend. While it's nice to hear your child's voice over the telephone, being able to see them as well is far better. I can quickly tell from my daughter's face and body language if she is OK, or upset, or tired, etc. That's not so easy to do over the phone.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 66.

    I have worked abroad in remote sites for 30 years. The first ten years were very lonely with only the occasional letter. The next ten were better as we started having 5 minutes a week on the satellite phone. The last ten years I have been able to used first a cell phone and now wonderful Skype to speak to my family and see my nieces and nephews grow up. Modern technology is not just for losers

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 65.

    It might have chnged a few more lives as well if there had been decent broadband in rural areas. Another reminder that vast areas of the UK are being left behind by their inability to get a fast connection. BT was given a billion by the government to do something about the lamentable broadband in the UK outside built up areas. It decided to spend the money on its new sports TV network instead.

  • Comment number 64.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 63.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 62.

    @5. CaptainSlow81
    I do not have anything to hide I just don't like people prying into my personal & private life, if I want people to know these things then I will tell them myself, yes I can see to good side of this like keeping in touch with those who are far away etc. and good luck to those who choose to use it, but leave me out of it.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 61.

    Ref. posting number 52.

    I am not a fan of Microsoft (MS) but I would point out that like all in the US they are obliged under Patriot Act to comply with the DIKTATS of the US security industry.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 60.

    @indaUK

    You are aware that the NSA doesn't need Microsoft to spy on you right? Also Microsoft admitted it gave up information because its normal for Security departments to request information.

    Microsoft also hoped they could reveal to the public what information was sent to the NSA to clear its name but the stupid government won't let them so it puts them conspiracy territory. Think peiople

  • Comment number 59.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 58.

    I only used Skype once, on my phone. The video and sound quality was awful. Far better to use the fixed telephone, even if it was invented over a century earlier. Better quality than mobile voice calls too. Strange how the quality of audio calls hasn't improved. We should have CD quality audio by now.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 57.

    Mark me and the other poster down all you like (Microsoft shills no doubt) but the information is reported on this very section of this BBC website.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-23285642

    Other sources provide more detail.

    It's not like I'm promoting another service. You are free to choose because choice is great.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 56.

    I live in Leeds and my 3 year old niece lives in london, and we have been using FaceTime since she was 1 - and it's the only way she has been able to remember me and let me see her growing up. She shows me her toys and books every time we speak, and tells me about her day. If we didn't have these tools, she would hardly remember the aunt who lives so far away.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 55.

    @53.
    You're right Billy, of course, there's no substitution for face to face contact. However it's been a godsend for us in "seeing" our daughter during lonely winter nights away at uni.

  • rate this
    -5

    Comment number 54.

    SKYPE Tried it to phone overseas and dumped it. Sounded like talking into a dust bin, and had to shout at full volume. Idea ahead of its time. Come back later when niggles sorted out

    Social/ anti-social networking. Overhyped/Overused by boring people to make their lives look more interesting than they really are. Killer of conversation and restaurant atmospheres. Stop it or get psychiatric help

 

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