Free Software Magazine recently ran an article entitled Wengophone: VoIP done right, with the subtitle Dreaming about a free software competitor for Skype? Maybe your wait is over.
It’s a dream I share. Again, as with my world cup prejudices, that got me questioning why exactly I share that dream. Sometimes its worth questioning core beliefs that I’ve held without question for a number of years. I must credit my time with startup Krypto + for those beliefs, and they arose spontaneously. When I arrived there in 1998, my knowledge of and exposure to free software was limited. Two years later, when I started with IOL, it was unshakeable.
I’d visited the Wengo site a while back in preparation for a post on Linux VOIP clients which never got written. I got quite excited reading this latest article, and rushed off over to the Wengo site again to give it a try. And soon realised why I hadn’t installed it before.
For me, the site is unusable. Arriving on the home page, as soon as I click on the skip intro link, I get taken off to a French version of the site. http://www.wengo.fr/index.php/homepage. Manually replacing the .fr with a .com thankfully calls up on English version. I click the link http://www.wengo.com/index.php/mp_download_wp_win. This looks dubious already, as with that name it would seem to go to a Windows download page, and you’d expect it to detect that I’m running Linux. But after clicking it, I don’t even get that far. I’m immediately taken back to the French version of the home page.
At this point I began to question why I wanted to try it. With most sites and products, I would have lost patience, and given up in disgust mumbling about incompetent webmasters and products not deserving my money.
But this is Free software! It’s the open alternative to Skype! It must be good. Why exactly do I find that attractive?
For one, since the Skype protocol is proprietary, we are reliant on Skype/EBay for development. The Linux version of Skype has always been behind the Windows version, and it’s drastically so right now. Skype 2, available for Windows since March, has video conferencing, while the latest version for Linux, 126.96.36.199, released October 2005, and has no such feature. Not only that, but it uses the deprecated Open Sournd System instead of the more modern ALSA. In short, it doesn’t interact well with other applications using sound on Linux. To add insult to injury, on June 14 a new Windows version was released, while it seems the Linux version has stalled. Since eBay took over, besides the 188.8.131.52 release a few days later, which had obviously been planned long before that, there have been no Linux releases. And a number of Windows releases.
With an open standard, problems such as the Skype’s stalled progress for Linux become less of an issue. It’s easy for another application to take up the slack.
Opponents of Free and Open Source software often claim that it discourages innovation. Without the motivation of the financial reward promised the ability to lock up the code and become the sole supplier, there’d be less innovation. They have a point to a degree. But the assumption is that money is the sole, or primary motivator. Personally, this is not the case. I also meet many wonderful people who are happy to provide their innovative gifts to the world without the associated need for vast reward, which is really greed.
I remember having a discussion with a friend of mine, who makes drum, and gives drummaking workshops. He mentioned he was worried that a particular person attending one of his courses was interested in stealing his ideas and then starting his own courses. I suggested he not worry about it, and that even if this person did start his own course, my friends own superior ability would shine through, and the extra marketing would bring new clients in general. More people sharing in the benefits would not necessarily mean less for him. However, he was unwilling to try it, and suggested that I felt that way only because I have lots of money (clearly that’s in the eye of the beholder), implying that I could afford to be generous.
I strongly disagree. Generosity opens up the taps, and there’ll be more going out, and more coming in. It’s only fear of scarcity that creates artificial barriers and blockages. There is enough food in the world. But much of it is hoarded or wasted. There is enough money (an abstract concept in itself) in the world. But hoarding, and the system built around it, creates imbalances and blockages.
Skype, by keeping their protocol closed, is inhibiting the uptake of their gift to the world. South Africa at present is being blanketed by Skype hype. Thanks to our beloved Telkom, and their excessive telecoms charges, Skype is an attractive alternative for many. They offer a gift of free telephony. But that’s where it ends. Wengophone promises much more. An open protocol that can communicate with other applications using the same protocol. It’s an unconditional gift, one where the taps cannot be closed in momments of greed or fear. It’s not as if this is self-sacrificing charity, as so many claim. Wengo, the French company behind it, will of course benefit financially if Wengophone becomes widespread. But they’d be doing it in a way that has much greater benefits for all.
However, while the benefits of free software are clear to me, telephony is a little different to running something on my desktop. I don’t really care if the rest of the world uses something different to me. But the benefit of Skype is that so many other people use them, so I can make use of the service to call them. If I’m the only one using Wengophone, I really am living on my own little island. Hopefully, their recent appearance on digg will give them some exposure.
Now, if they could just sort out their website.