Skype is up again, but not for everyone

But the peer-to-peer phone service's day-long outage isn't a reason to ditch Internet calls.

Published August 17, 2007 3:57PM (EDT)

The Internet phone service Skype was offline for much of the day Thursday due to a software glitch that prevented folks from logging in -- which, if you're a user, you know all too well by now. On its blog, Skype says that an "encouraging number of users can now use Skype once again," but that all problems aren't fully fixed. I'm well aware: I've been trying to log in for more than 24 hours now, and I'm not in yet.

I use Skype as my main reporting phone, and its record is mostly fantastic. But when it's down, boy, do you feel lost. All day, I watched the friendly Skype icon spinning in my task bar, graphical proof of my computer's valiant efforts to connect to the peer-to-peer cloud of Skype servers, to no avail.

The work-around wasn't so difficult: Millions around the world rely on Skype, but everyone's got another phone or two, and when Skype's down, we can reroute our lives. You could argue -- and many are doing so -- that Skype's outage (which made headlines across the planet) is a sign of the unreliability of Internet phones; if you need a phone that won't fail, you can't rely on anything as complex as a peer-to-peer network.

There's some truth in this, sure. Though engineers have apparently located the bug in Skype software, they seem unsure, according to news reports, why it led to such a large-scale failure. The glitch, Skype tells The New York Times, is embedded in every copy of the Skype client downloaded since 2003. "Skype executives said they still did not know why the error, sitting dormant for four years, suddenly crashed the network," the paper says.

But critics looking to indict VOIP phone services over such bugs ought to consider the frailty of all the globe's infrastructure. Traditional land-line phone service, at least in my experience, is great but not perfect; my home phone went down once this year for several days, no explanation given. My DSL line, which is over the phone, goes down far more often.

Cell service, meanwhile, is far from reliable; mobiles drop calls more frequently than does Skype. The electric grid has its hiccups, too. Craigslist, Yelp, Technorati and several other sites went offline a few weeks ago due to a power failure in San Francisco, a failure that was caused by nothing more than a glitchy transformer at an electrical substation.

And there are the bridges, the coal mines, the steam pipes: Things fail, sometimes spectacularly and catastrophically, but most often just annoyingly. Skype's no different, apparently. Here's to its quick recovery.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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