By Elizabeth Hardy
A new trend is developing at the University of Richmond, and it has nothing to do with Seersuckers or sundresses. University of Richmond students are downloading a new video-chat technology, Skype.
Skype is being downloaded by more than just the UR population. At the beginning of August 2005, the Skype counter showed more than 144 million worldwide downloads, according to O'Reilly Media Network, a website about technology trends.
"Skype may not take over the world," O'Reilly Network columnist James Gaskin wrote. "However, Skype makes the world's highest-quality phone connections available for the world's lowest price: free."
More than 25 million registered users were persuaded to join Skype by word of mouth, according to the O'Reilly Network. That is how it is primarily spreading across the University of Richmond campus.
"Skype fans spread the word that Skype was a hip and free method of talking to friends anywhere in the world," Gaskin wrote in his 2005 article "What is Skype?"
So what can Skype do for UR? Students have different opinions.
"I use it to video-chat and play online games with my girlfriend," freshman Brendon Cristobal said.
Cristobal is not the only one. Long-distance couples can put on their wireless headsets and stay connected through Skype anytime they are on their computer. Skype users can play games, instant message and see each other's faces during conversation.
In a survey conducted about Richmond students' Skype usage, one respondent said, "Skype is the closest thing to actually being with the person."
Long-distance relationships are not the only relationships Richmond students can keep up with on Skype. UR was named the "Hottest School for International Studies" by Newsweek in its 2008 issue "25 Hottest Schools in America." Student panelists at the spring Study Abroad Orientation said they appreciated free international calling methods like Skype.
Of 50 randomly selected Richmond students, half said they primarily use Skype to talk to friends who are studying abroad.
"While abroad, I was able to use Skype to keep in touch with my family and friends," one survey participant said. "We used the video feature, so I was able to keep in contact better and it helped me avoid feeling homesick. Also, it is a cheap alternative to using a telephone."
Another respondent felt similarly.
"Without Skype, I don’t think I would have been able to afford calling my family as much as I did," the respondent wrote.
Survey participants also said they used Skype to talk with family members and to friends who go to different schools.
"It allows me to visually communicate with my friends who are at different schools," a participant said.
Junior Yasmin Wazir talked about the benefits of Skype as a college student away from home.
"I used Skype for an interview process," Wazir said. "The night before my interview I made my mom download Skype and she quizzed me with medical questions for two hours. It was extremely beneficial. She actually yelled at me for twirling my hair and not having good posture. It was a lot more beneficial for my mom to €˜interview' me over Skype from West Virginia than over the phone."
The wide-ranging uses of Skype prompted bloggers and journalists to explain the Skype "phenomenon."
"Why do we Skype?" journalist Phil Wolff asked on Skypejournal.com. "Off the cuff: freedom from cost, privacy from government and employers, multiple modes of communication in one conversation, and presence for avoided voicemail."
But not everyone joined Skype. It poses risks to your computer, some students said. "Skype is a joke," freshman Jesse Goss said, "It screwed up my computer and made it go so slow."
The Australian National University explained this issue in greater depth on the Information Services' "Pros and Cons of Skype" page. It listed Skype as a target for hackers and susceptible to viruses, malware and the rapid spread of malicious files. Skype bypasses network security and firewalls, which worries security experts.
The quality of Skype's video-chat software also concerned students. Senior Nicole Huetter relied on Skype's video chat to maintain her relationship with her Australian boyfriend.
"I used Skype a ton when it came out," Huetter said. "It was a pain to call Australia, though. The calls to Australia always had delayed responses."
Another senior, Diana Gallagher, agreed.
"I used it to maintain a long-distance relationship with a guy in Canada and then in Scotland," Gallagher said. "In Canada it was fine, but in Scotland the service was really bad, so it would end the call or be staticky. I could hardly hear him."
Skype continues to address these concerns, but students said that it was not always as successful at addressing its competition. Some students preferred AOL Instant Messenger, MSN or Mac's video-chat software.
"Skype's video quality is darker than and not as good as MSN," Huetter said. "Skype's calls are often dropped."
Sophomore Ally Watkins tried Skype but reverted back to Mac's video-chat.
"My boyfriend has a Mac and so do I," Watkins said. "So we use that video-chat program."
Sophomore Jacquelyn DeWolfe stayed loyal to another competitor, AOL Instant Messenger.
"I've used Skype to talk to people who have it," DeWolfe said. "But I don't make the calls, I only receive them. I haven't gotten into it yet, not like AIM."
Students preferred AIM over other forms of online communication, according to the student survey. More than 60 percent responded that AIM was their favorite form of online chat, with one person listing Skype as a first choice.
Nevertheless, self-proclaimed "Skype fanatics" like Gaskin trust in its value and its future.
"Dig a little deeper into what else Skype offers now and plans to roll out soon," Gaskin wrote. "You realize Skype is the most advanced voice communications tool available today. […] Many companies are hitching their products to the global Skype bandwagon."
UR students who follow the Skype trend agreed.
"Sometimes it is the best option when face-to-face contact is not available," a Richmond survey respondent said.