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Skype might stop next year. The service's owner, eBay, has said that it is in dispute with the VoIP system's founders (see a report here but it doesn't say much more than I'm going to repeat here) and that if the new owners can't get the underlying technology from the old, then it's unlikely that the service will be able to continue.

Which is fair enough at first glance. If they can't get the technology then they can't get the technology. And yet...

You have to ask a few questions, don't you? Like, how was someone able to acquire a business without acquiring the underlying tech that would make it work? As it is, eBay is warning that the plug may be pulled on everyone by this time next year. Phrases like 'not good enough' spring all too easily to mind.

Even more important, what happens to the users? I use Skype a little to talk to family members around the world - I almost never use it for business. Other people do, though, and what's eBay going to say to them - 'sorry, we forgot to buy all of the technology so it's goodbye time'?

If this happens (and let's be honest, this could just be posturing to try to force a settlement) then it will be difficult for users - even business users whose livelihoods will be affected - to complain. I say that for a very good reason: Skype, alongside Gmail and a whole load of other business class software we take for granted, is free. We can ask for our money back if we want, but, er, there wasn't any. We might even object and if our pockets are deep enough, take someone who suddenly withdraws a free service to court. The court will, I guarantee, take a look at the fact that we were expecting a free service and basically ask why we felt entitled to it indefinitely.

Somehow over the last ten years or so we have become accustomed to the idea that software that is of actual value to people will be available, perpetually, and it won't cost a dime. We've assumed upgrades, we've assumed support and guess what, one of the owners is now admitting this might be a bit more trouble than it's worth.

Bloggers will jump up and down. People will demand more notice (or 'any' notice). But ultimately we're being encouraged to base our business activities on someone else's system that we've been invited to use for nothing - and that invitation can be withdrawn at any point. I wonder how many businesses setting up on the cheap will be affected by this - or if this issue is resolved, whether they'll be hit next time.

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