Skype at 10: How an Estonian startup transformed itself (and the world)
Skype Milestones slideshow
Ten years ago, applying the idea of peer-to-peer technology to the idea of making calls via the Internet “was visionary – the best idea anybody could have,” Henning says.
Servers and clouds didn’t exist in the same way at that time, and small technology companies didn’t necessarily have the funds to buy and operate huge server farms to power their products.
Using peer-to-peer technology meant that the processing, storage and bandwidth needed to power Skype could be shared and distributed among all of its users, or peers. Each user contributed a share of computing resources to help Skype run. In return, that user could call a grandparent in Florida, a cousin in Antarctica, or a childhood friend in Japan and talk for hours.
The architecture that made Skype a success in the beginning became a problem to sustain as its popularity exploded. As time progressed, and Skype’s peer-to-peer network experienced multiple stomach-flipping outages, engineers knew something had to change.
“A simple mistake could make everything crumble,” Henning says. “People started to realize this was potentially not a sustainable way of maintaining a huge communication platform.”
There would have to be a shift in technology, which wasn’t easy considering all the factors. Skype would have to evolve its architecture in a way that was minimally disruptive to users, backwards compatible, friendly to multiple platforms and, eventually, be able to run on mobile devices as well.
“I know Skype had a lot of issues with its technology,” Henning says. “But even though we had these issues, the engineers working on the code are brilliant and the solutions they came up with and the whole architecture of Skype is actually quite amazing.”
Andrei Jefremov, the man hired to bring video to Skype, is one of those.
Jefremov had developed a video player for Kazaa, and was so impressed at working with Skype’s founders that he told them when they were ready to do video to give him a call. They did, and in August 2004, Jefremov started work to bring video calling to Skype. Though he was later joined by valuable developers like Karlheinz Wurm, for Jefremov’s first three years at Skype it was just him and a quality engineer. (By contrast, the video team now has upwards of 60 people.)
He would later be joined by Karlheinz Wurm, now one of the highest ranking long-time Skype employees at Microsoft, but for a couple of years the video calling team was just Jefremov, a quality engineer, and a pool of enthusiastic beta testers.
If you saw him working during this period, you’d think he was stiffly dancing in front of his computers – leaning to the left, then to the right, left, right, left. He wasn’t dancing at all, but placing calls to himself between two computers and moving in front of each camera to make sure the video was working properly on both ends.
“People made a lot of jokes about the way I moved back and forth,” he says.
Developing video was a curious mix of working alone, with beta testers, and with engineers from around Europe – even the founders themselves. While Jefremov was bringing video to Skype calls, he was singularly focused on one question – what do users want? Years later, it’s still the key question.
In its first decade, Skype moved through a number of jarring changes not unlike a toddler becoming a teenager. And now, Skype is growing up.
“There’s a chance for us to reinvent Skype today as long as we keep thinking about users, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re putting users in the center,” says Jefremov, who is now the principal architect in Microsoft’s Real Time Media group (which includes Skype and Lync).
“A lot of friends ask the question of why are we writing code if Skype works so well on the PC,” he says. “The answer is: we are solving for today’s generation of problems and tomorrow’s, like making Skype and the mobile work together, and Skype and the cloud. This is where people are moving in their communication. It is extremely challenging, interesting and a lot of hard work. We look forward to solving it for our users.”
3: Skype is in the dictionary
5: Back to the future