Skype at 10: How an Estonian startup transformed itself (and the world)
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There are practical uses, like tutoring, elder care and daily decision making. Skype users are also taking their friends and family with them to doctor, hair and tattoo appointments. Parents, instead of plopping their toddlers in front of Saturday morning cartoons, are setting up Skype play dates for their kids to get screen time with other little ones – far-off cousins or friends. Gerould’s daughter, a college student, even uses Skype to study with her best friend who attends a different university.
“They’re not even talking so much as they’re studying; they’re just not being alone, as if it’s the old days doing homework together,” Gerould says. “Sometimes people use Skype for nothing special, just a window on life.”
On the other side of the mountain (and at its peak as well), Skype is also being used in more epic ways than ever before.
In August, musicians and playwrights Michael de Roos and Jody Christopherson debuted their work, “The Skype Show or See You in August” at The New York International Fringe Festival. The show, which features an actor on stage and another on a live Skype call, is billed as “a testament to how technology can transcend boundaries, uniting artists and their audience.”
In November, Fabien Cousteau – grandson of explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau – will spend 31 days in an undersea marine habitat 63 feet beneath the waves. Through Skype in the Classroom’s Exploring Oceans lessons, students will get the opportunity to experience the beauty of the ocean alongside the world’s leading marine experts.
“The trends are changing as people have more mobility with Skype,” Gerould says. “We’re seeing people sharing not only precious life events, but adventures – seeing things for the first time and wanting to share.”
Like what? Gerould opens her Excel spreadsheet containing thousands of unique stories. One Skype user taped his mobile phone to his hand to let his friends “ride” a roller coaster ride with him. One duo took Skype into their respective Starbucks simultaneously to see whose barista was faster. Another encountered a bear while hiking in Wyoming, which led to live Skype video of the chase.
Meanwhile, others have made Skype a traveling companion when traveling to remote and far-flung parts of the world. British explorer Mark Wood, for instance. For six years, Wood has used Skype and a satellite to connect to his loved ones (and to school classrooms and executive board rooms) from Antarctica, the Arctic Circle, Alaska (along with his dogsled team), the Himalayas and even while crossing the U.S. on a bicycle.
"Skype is very clever, in that it’s allowed us to open doors, windows if you like, to the world."
- Mark Wood , British explorer
“I was using Skype anyway in my own life, and I could see how effective it could be with expeditions,” Wood says. “It has this tremendous way of connecting people. After a while you kind of lose the screen. I’ve had 200 students in Australia on the other side, and you just lose the screen and connect directly with them.”
After becoming an avid user of Skype himself, Wood walked into London’s Skype office and asked the company to help set up Nepalese school children with Skype. His idea: Create a cyber café with solar panels where Himalayan tourists can pay a little to make Skype calls home, and then use the earnings to give local schoolchildren access to Skype. Wood wanted to connect kids living at cloud level in the shadow of Mount Everest to the rest of the world, and he did.
One of the most poignant results of this came two years ago as the Nepalese students prepared to connect with some kids in Japan. The students in Japan had recently been hit hard by a tsunami, and had even seen victims’ bodies at their own school. Wood spoke to the children about the importance of coming together, and sat back to watch as the children connected. The students talked about the tsunami that day, but lots of other things as well.
“When I was a child, we sometimes had speakers come in, but now we can have children connect directly with an explorer right up on top of Mount Everest,” Wood says. “Skype is very clever, in that it’s allowed us to open doors, windows if you like, to the world.”
He’ll be taking Skype – and loads of school children, by extension – on his next expedition to the Geographic North Pole to research climate change. With strong winds, arctic temperatures, melting ice and “the added interest of polar bears,” it promises to be a perilous but educational journey. And thanks to Skype, young people all over the world will make it with him.
“It’s a very powerful tool,” he says.
Skype has helped make innumerable important moments possible for millions around the world. It’s perhaps only fitting, then, that in its first decade – from its Estonian birth to its rowdy startup days to settling in at Microsoft – Skype has lived an engrossing story of its own.
2: Welcome to Estonia