Skype Reverse-Engineered

by Bruce Stewart

It looks like Skype has been successfully reverse-engineered by a group in China according to a blog post by Charlie Paglee. Alec Saunders was the first one to point me to Charlie's report of a demo (with screenshots) of a non-Skype client using the Skype network.

It was only a matter of a time, and with the cracked Skype software coming out of China there is next to no possibility of stopping it. As Charlie points out:

From a legal standpoint eBay is out of luck. First, Skype itself is not viewed as "legal" in China. Chinese regulatory authorities have even looked into ways to block Skype in various regions of China. The Chinese telecom giants are not at all pleased with Skype 'stealing' IDD revenue from their pockets. They will enthusiastically support a domestic Chinese company with the engineering talent to reverse engineer Skype. I wouldn't be surprised if a major Chinese telco ends up licensing this technology to produce a competing Skype client for use in China.

What's more, there is nothing at all illegal or even morally wrong with what this group of engineers has accomplished, especially from the Chinese perspective. They reverse engineered a protocol that was not protected by patent. They will be seen as heroes in China and it is unlikely the government will ever take action against them.

The software isn't ready for release yet, but it sounds like it will be available soon and this will pose some very interesting questions for eBay and Skype.Phil Wolff figures Skype's options are opening, switching, quashing, ignoring, or investing:

Open. They're already on the path to opening up more of their apps at the API level. Skype could embrace this at the protocol level too. This is the hardest thing to do, but may pay off in the long run. Exposing these protocols is the only way for the Skype network to become an industry standard. And it would put Skype in a position of leadership the way Microsoft is for dot net, Sun is for Java, and Adobe is for Flash.

Switch. Skype could change the protocols, breaking the new software. This is a costly and temporary solution; tricky but doable. Replacing Skype clients for updates is hard enough; getting everyone to migrate could kill the brand love. It won't be long until the Chinese engineers figure out how to get in again.

Quash. Skype might try to blow out the startup's fire. eBay has a powerful combination of PR, lobbyists, litigators, and business allies. Even in China. Skype could try to accuse the startup of piracy. My guess is Skype will tread litely. These tactics rarely work in China and often tarnish the reputation of the outsider applying the pressure.

Ignore. Skype has enough to do. Wait and see.

Invest. Buy the team, put them to work.

I'd have to agree with Alec that opening up is really the only good option there for Skype. In fact, I'd highly reccomend Alec's Detente in IM's Cold War? post where he analyzes the changes happening in the IM world and makes a darn good argument for Skype to take the open road.