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net.wars: Ecommerce talks

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 16 September 2005


There's no doubt that the Merger of the Week is eBay's acquisition of Skype. This is one of those nuclear proliferation moments. You know, like Tom Lehrer sang about the bomb back in 1965 or thereabouts. It's like 1998 all over again, when all of a sudden every Web directory had to be a portal and had to have free email.

Wendy M Grossman

So eBay has Skype, and Microsoft is acquiring Teleo , and Google has Google Talk, and of course you've been able (at least theoretically) to make phone calls via AIM, ICQ, and Yahoo! Chat, and VOIP visionary Jeff Pulver comments by email that his 500,000-strong FreeWorldDialup community "can be to an Amazon what Skype is to eBay."

Probably most of the people who use VOIP never heard of Pulver, just as the other week I met a company who believed it was reinventing the World Wide Web and had never heard of Tim Berners-Lee.

I first ran across Pulver in 1995, when he was working on the first version of Free World Dial-Up. It was the first service designed to let people talk over the Internet to people they already knew instead of strangers who happened to have signed up on the same server. At the time, no one had broadband, and my phone bills including Internet, local calls (which were billed by the minute in the UK then), and long distance were running upwards of $3,500 a year, and calls from the UK to the US could cost as much as $1 a minute. (For comparison, I now spend about $1800 a year, soon to reduce by another $400, and calls to the US cost about 5 *cents* a minute.) The experimental service involved a MASH unit-like system of patching calls from one modem to another to transfer them from the Internet connection to the ordinary telephone network that Pulver thought up because of his background in ham radio.

"We’re not competing with the telephone companies," he said at the time. "We’re providing a way for people to communicate, and if you’re on the net and want to take advantage of the experiment it’s there." Yesterday, he said, "This was never about long distance termination but so much more."

FWD isn't, but of course other Internet phone companies popped up to do just that in the intervening decade, and many of them will be convening next week at the fall VON conference in Boston, which by now attracts over 6,000 people every six months.

Still, it seems likely that eBay has no interest in becoming a phone company, as some press analysts seem to think, and equally I don't think, as technology journalist Charles Arthur suggests in the Independent that it's about making money from IM. After all, buying PayPal didn't turn eBay into a bank.

In fact, eBay seems closer to Pulver's vision than, say, Vonage, which does function as a telco replacement. Of all the ten-year-old Internet companies, eBay understood from the beginning that it was creating a community, and that the key to the Internet as a medium is its unique character of connecting many to many. While one-to-one phone calls seem to have nothing to do with that, think of a mesh network. The more interconnections you have between individual nodes, the stronger the network is.

So I think the move adds another element to the essential infrastructure underpinning eBay's auctions. The current system of emailing sellers when you have questions is clunky and slow. It seems only logical that the many sellers who make a living on eBay will be able to virtually staff their shops at regular hours, answer questions in real time, whether by voice or IM, and function like people running a real business. It's years since companies like Lands' End added a button for a live text or phone chat that works via their own interface. Skype will give eBay a ready-made client and community to integrate.

Although of course technically these things are never as easy as you think they're going to be – Skype refuses to do anything on my desktop, since it's erroneously convinced my sound setup is flawed in some obscure way – this is about giving people access to a full set of tools. You can argue that there's no need for eBay to buy Skype to do any of this; anyone can run Skype or what-have-you and communicate about an auction, but building it into the interface is what will make it work for the mass market that eBay now is.

Of course, this is also just a fantastic opportunity for new forms of phishing. "You have a phone call with important news about your eBay account; click here." (Sound of heavy breathing and a recorded voice saying "I want to ride you big" with a little pop while the computer inserts your name (or what it thinks is your name) read out in Stephen Hawking's synthesised voice.) There'll be Web sites replaying the audio of prank calls. There'll be people luring you into opening an audio channel so they can capture the sounds of your keystrokes as you log into your Paypal account.

And there'll be viruses that turn your computer into a zombie telemarketer, calling people at dinner in other countries offering them time-share holiday homes.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).