Friday, January 09, 2009

Travelogue: Viva Les Internets! (or, Further Adventures In Customer Service)

Another in my series of stories from my recent trip home. This time, more blah blah blah about some shite or other.

I've been a Skype user since before it was taken over by The Man, and loved every minute of it. Since the end of the last century, when I emigrated, I've been looking for a cheap-as-free way to communicate with the rest of my family who are three and a half thousand miles away, other than by the emotionless IM, the expensive telephone or the outdated snail mail.

My older sister and I tried, and had moderate success with, Yahoo Messenger's push-to-talk voice system which was a system much like that old friend, the Citizen's Band radio; you pressed a button when it was your go to talk, and the sound quality was rubbish. No 'beepitty-beep' at the end of the message, though, and no pre-teens taking up an entire channel playing dance music. Oh, and no truckers threatening to track you down and kill you, either. And in a way, it was a lesser communications format for that very reason. That was in ye olde dayes of flow dial-uppe modem, and it sufficed. In fact, it did admirably well, when you think about how pokey 28.8 was for ANYTHING. How the hell did we survive with those horrid, slow, screechy modems?

Then came Microsoft's OS-embedded NetMeeting, which - when it worked - incorporated all sorts of cool toys like webcam support, shared desktop and whiteboard facilities, for all of our transatlantic conversational, V-flicking and cartoon arse-drawing needs. Problem was, it rarely worked. If you could get connected to the other person, and most of the time you couldn't, the audio would be stuttery, the video practically non-existent or freezy. And besides, everyone knows that it's too difficult to draw a decent cartoon arsehole with a mouse. But that, too, sufficed. For a while.

After NetMeeting came Google Talk, the first voip application (or 'voipplication') that featured incredibly good sound quality. The other applications sounded like CB, or like you were talking into a toilet and being broadcast on medium wave. gTalk's audio quality was supreme, like you were beside the other person. No webcam and no arses, but one was willing to go without because the sound quality was so incredibly great. gTalk had one extremely irritating problem, though, and that was that it absolutely wouldn't stay connected. Halfway through a sentence, the connection would be lost for a second or so, then reconnect. This would happen at least once per minute. There was even a wee meter that looked like a signal strength indicator on a cellphone that would drop from three to nothing, as if you just went under a bridge. Initially, an irritant. In the long term, unusably annoying. Especially since one had to restart a sentence, after fifteen seconds of "can you hear me? are you there? what just happened?" and then a further ten of "ok, where did you lose me?", at which point it was time for it to drop again.

Not long after the gTalk debacle, along came Skype, from the makers of Kazzaa. Skype, at that point, was still owned and operated by those rogue kings of p2p (which, let's be brutally frank, made it all the sexier) and had no frills. No webcam, no file transfer... just an easy on the eye, sky-blue "S" logo and the promise of stability. And boy, was it stable. Fast forward several years and multiple hyperbolic praising, and my entire family are hooked up with Skype, where we can all talk to each other for free.

Now, one of the very cool features of Skype is the ability to make phone calls to or from the UK for around $0.02 per minute, and the option to purchase a local number that will ring in Skype. So, for example, my parents in Glasgow have a 1-304 WV number that I can call them on from any phone, and I have a Glasgow 0141 number that they can call. All very cool, right? My parents' old 1-304 number had expired so, with me being at home, I decided to renew it for them. The time had passed where we could renew their existing number, so I got on the Skype website to buy a new one.

Maybe it was jetlag. Maybe it was the excitement of being home. Maybe I was drunk, whatever it was, I bought them a local 0141 number, rather than the 1-304 they needed. Duurr. The number only cost twelve quid, but twelve quid is twelve quid, so I contacted Skype to explain the problem and see if we could get the number swapped.

I must confess; I didn't hold out much hope. Four years ago, Skype was purchased by Ebay for an obscene amount of money, and there are stories a-plenty of how terrible Ebay's customer service is - particularly when it comes to something going wrong. Exponentially so when the situation demands a refund of some sort. But my experience with Skype customer service was completely the opposite. They responded with a personalised reply within 2 days, and the whole shebang has been sorted within two weeks. Refunds, the lot. AND they were pleasant.

And so, in conclusion, Skype kicks ass.

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