Software

Microsoft to rip up P2P Skype, killing native Mac, Linux apps

Redmond decides you'll sound better if its VoIP system runs in the cloud via the browser

By Richard Chirgwin

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In the same month Microsoft announced its alpha WebRTC-based Skype for Linux client, Redmond has put that native app and the native OS X Skype client on an end-of-life list.

This is because Skype is being rebuilt to replace its peer-to-peer architecture with cloud-centric code that supports Windows, iOS, Android and web browsers.

Microsoft has not given Mac and Linux users a date to dread. For now you can still get latest versions for all supported platforms – but it's clear that full-fat Mac and Linux native clients aren't something on which Microsoft wants to spend money forever.

News of the cloud-and-mobile-centric rebuild came on the Skype blog, where Microsoft says at some point in the future it will focus on “core platforms” – in other words: “the newly released, lighter, faster and more responsive UWP app for Windows 10, Skype for iPhone, iPad and Android."

Linux and Mac (and older Windows versions) will ultimately be bumped to “a web-based native version of Skype” running in your browser – but cheer up, you'll “benefit from the latest ORTC or WebRTC technology.”

Skype itself – the application that released VoIP from its firewall prison in 2003, first bought by eBay and then by Microsoft – is, after all, end-of-life: once Microsoft completes its transformation, it will be nothing but a brand and a skin. Its peer-to-peer network, pretty much the service's only distinguishing feature, will be gone.

Microsoft reckons it needs to rebuild Skype to improve call quality: once traffic has reached the Microsoft cloud, Redmond shuffles the bits between ingress and egress. To that extent, it can control call quality – but the user experience will still depend far more on their broadband connection, their ISP, and so on.

Feature development is a much more plausible explanation, since the explicit aim of a slimmed-down, mobile-first approach is that most features are written once for the cloud instead of once for each client.

Hence Microsoft is able to pitch new or enhanced features as the showcase of the world that awaits users, namely better file sharing, video messaging, mobile group calling, translation and bots.

There's no reason to think Microsoft's about to abandon Skype's encryption, but abandoning the peer-to-peer model does raise questions of user privacy. Reading Redmond's encryption FAQ, here, it seems the only change the company has in mind is for instant messages.

Today, peer-to-peer IMs use AES 256 encryption while IMs passed through cloud use TLS. When all messages travel through the cloud, they'll all use TLS. On-network Skype calls will still use AES 256.

However, what's not clear is whether the encryption will apply end-to-end, negotiated between clients – and that's something Microsoft would do well to clarify.

If encryption is now negotiated between Microsoft and the Skype client, users will surely be concerned that law enforcement will be able to serve a warrant on the company – and, unlike WhatsApp, it will have the capacity to comply. ®

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