When Skype was first released in 2003, it disrupted the video and VoIP communications market in such a way that it made the idea mainstream. Despite this traction, in 2016 it struggles to maintain market share as its competitors begin to offer more features and higher conference quality.
But if there’s one thing that served to threaten Skype’s dominance in the conferencing market, it was the fact that people had to register for accounts in order to participate in conversations. Alternatives began to appear around 2013 that began to chip away at its foundation, and we don’t see signs of this slowing down at any point in the future.
I intend to answer the questions of why startups (and Skype) are shifting away from this model and how security can be guaranteed even without formal authentication.
How Accounts Impede Communication
To reach somebody on the Internet, you need to know that the person you’re talking to is who they say they are. They also need some veritable proof that you are you. That’s why we have accounts. When an account called “Miguel Leiva-Gomez” is sending you an instant message on some social network, you know (eliminating the possibility of impostors) that it is me.
But what if you only appear on Twitter and I am only on Facebook? The only way we can communicate with each other in this particular scenario is if I make a Twitter account or you make one on Facebook.
We live in a time where almost every single person browsing the Internet has at least one account somewhere, certainly one that is tied to an email address. In fact, the average Internet user has over 5 different accounts to manage. This leads to a psychosocial phenomenon known as “account fatigue.”
It’s tough to convince someone to create a whole new account just to talk to one other person, and that is the dilemma that services like Skype have been facing leading up to 2013 when even social networking services like Facebook began toying with the idea of including video calls as part of their messaging feature set, and Google was experimenting with Hangouts. Those sites required accounts, too, but they already had a lion’s share of the Internet’s users under their umbrella.
To add insult to injury, Google and Facebook have engaged in a practice called “federation” in which you could use those accounts as a “passport” to log into other sites. This quickly made having one of these accounts (or both) far more valuable than anything Skype could offer to those who don’t already use their services.
What Skype Did About It
Since almost every Internet user has an account on some other communication platform, it’s difficult to justify requiring yet another one for a higher-level platform such as video conferencing. Skype ended up taking a page off of Zoom.Us’ book and no longer required people to have an account to join a video conference.
Instead, hosts could send a link to their guests so that they can join the meeting instantly. This may be a case of “too little, too late,” however, since there are many alternatives (such as Zoom) that have pioneered a much more feature-rich offer with higher-quality video using the same account-less model for guest entrances.
Although Skype still has a tremendous user base, and this move may have helped Microsoft hold onto it, this move alone will certainly not guarantee sustained growth.
What About Security?
Account-less entry (in theory) means that anyone with the link to your video conference can enter it and potentially impersonate one of your guests. Most providers let you kick people out of the conversation if you don’t want them, but you can probably see how having an open room that anyone can walk into would leave you extremely vulnerable.
Meeting passwords and non-static conversation identifiers (an ID that changes every time you start a new convo) ensure that every conversation you have is private while maintaining the convenience of allowing people to enter without having to create accounts on the platform.
In the end, we’re going to continue seeing startups attempting to consolidate the effects of account fatigue, and video conferencing providers will have to adapt to this trend or risk losing relevance with new users.
Which model do you prefer? Tell us in a comment!