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Skype’s SILKen bear hug

Skype’s SILK codec debuted to rave reviews in Skype 4.0.  A wideband codec, it provides wonderfully realistic sounding voice and at a fraction of the bandwidth consumption of other solutions.

Today Skype will announce that the SILK codec will be available to anyone on open and royalty free terms.  Device manufacturers can now start to build SILK capabilities into their products.  From a consumer’s perspective – if all goes according to Skype’s plan – you won’t need to be at your PC anymore to experience Skype audio quality.  Instead, SILK will be built into all kinds of audio devices.

It’s a great plan.  The criticism levelled at all “high definition” audio schemes is that both parties have to use these services in order to achieve the benefit.  Making SILK ubiquitous is the way to make that happen. And with 405 million Skype installations to back it, SILK has far more chance at being ubiquitous than say, any other high definition codec being promoted by the industry.  For once, manufacturers have an incentive to simply include a wideband codec on every product they sell.

Moreover, those devices don’t necessarily have to be Skype devices.  In chatting with Skype’s Jonathan Christensen yesterday, he revealed to me that SILK doesn’t require Skype signalling protocols. In fact, SILK media streams could just as easily be originated and consumed by SIP devices.  Further, SILK media streams pass unchanged across Skype’s own media gateways, meaning that SIP endpoints have suddenly become much more compelling in the Skype world.

Skype’s strategy has two obvious features:

  1. Skype intends to spread wideband audio everywhere.  By making the codec widely licensable and not tying it to Skype’s protocol set, Skype is saying that every phone is or should be a wideband phone.   And by extension, every audio service ought to be as well. A casualty of this strategy will be all of the competing royalty bearing codecs in the market. 
  2. Skype is giving the existing carriers a bear hug.  The bet is that consumers really care about audio quality, and that they will prefer IP phones that implement the SILK codec.  Hugging the carriers close will eventually result in an accelerated shift of voice traffic from the carrier network onto the data network, and from expensive toll minutes to cheap data packets.

Audacious?  Sure.  But would you expect anything less from the top primate in the Voice 2.0 ecosystem?

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