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I presume that Microsoft will integrate Skype into its Windows Phone 7 offerings in an attempt to provide it with some unique features over rival mobile operating systems. That will certainly be popular with users, but the mobile network providers might not be so happy, and that could be problematic given the low market share of Windows Phone 7: Microsoft has very little clout here. That might stymie its plans for Skype in this regard – or give yet more impetus to competitors like Android and the iPhone.

Interestingly, the press release announcing the purchase addressed explicitly the issue of how Microsoft would treat rival platforms: “Microsoft will continue to invest in and support Skype clients on non-Microsoft platforms.” To a certain extent, it has to: Skype is all about connectivity, and so the more clients, the more powerful the platform. However, there's plenty of wiggle room in Microsoft's statement: it doesn't promise to support all existing clients, and there are various levels of support.

For example, given Windows Phone 7's poor showing, I would guess that other smartphone platforms like Android and iPhone will be fully supported initially – the hope in Redmond being that Windows Phone 7 will eventually take off enough for them to be downgraded into second-tier Skype services at a later date.

However, I expect that kind of downgrading to happen much sooner to the GNU/Linux client for Skype (never a particularly wonderful piece of code). I doubt whether Microsoft would drop it completely – that might look like monopolistic bullying – but the company could probably get away with a subtle and gradual falling behind on features that eventually makes Skype unusable on GNU/Linux.

This all means that, for people running that system, now would be a very good time to look at alternatives to Skype which, as closed source, has always been unsatisfactory (similar concerns also rule out Google Chat, even though a GNU/Linux client version is available).

As usual, the problem is not that there aren't any free software programs offering similar features to Skype, but that there are too many. Ones that come to mind include Ekiga, Linphone, Jitsi, GNU Free Call, and there are doubtless others (what's your favourite?)

Choice, as ever, is good, but there a few potential problems here. First, is the issue of interoperability. Judging at least by some comments, that's not as good as it could be. At the very least, we need all the main open source clients to play together nicely.

But even with that achieved, there is still the problem of fragmentation. As is well known, voice and video telephony are all about network effects – getting users to get more users. The fragmented free software landscape means that the network effects are not just smaller, they are much smaller than they would be if there were only one offering.

That might mean that the community needs to concentrate its efforts on just one project, anointing it as the “official” rival to Skype. This would be difficult to achieve, hacker loyalties being what they are, but would have another huge benefit: it would allow more ports for different platforms to be produced for that particular client – another absolute necessity if free software is to be a viable alternative to Skype. Of the programs mentioned above, only Linphone seems to have good smartphone coverage. Jitsi supports Windows, Mac and GNU/Linux, but has no versions for smartphones, while Ekiga only supports Windows and GNU/Linux. GNU Free Call doesn't even exist yet.

If it managed to concentrate the minds of VoiP hackers sufficiently to unite around a common codebase, Microsoft's purchase of Skype could actually turn out to be good news for free software. Let's hope enough people get the message.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca. For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

Note: An earlier version of this article suggested Linphone had no Windows client.

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