Saturday, 15 November 2008

The ups and downs of skyping with Linux

Originally posted in The Daily Daniel

Having recently moved to the USA, my need to communicate cheaply with people back home has meant that I have subscribed to Skype which allows me to call people through computers for free, or to landline or mobile phones at discounted rate.

I use linux because my computer is my toy and, in many respects, my livelihood. Linux is a much more fun and much more powerful operating system because it grants you, at least in principle, more control over the operation of your computer (which is usually unseen and unreachable on windows systems) through commands made in a terminal. Scientific computing is easier and much wider in scope if you know a few basic linux commands. Almost everything in linux is obfuscating, but learning its ways is enormously satisfying. All linux computing is completely free, as it should be.

Being a linux user, however, means that new software like skype are either generally unavailable because they are proprietary, or because the software developers don't choose to make them available to linux users because they represent a small fraction of computer users. Not only was I very glad to hear, then, that skype was available for linux, but that it even dealt with my 64-bit architecture (which has given me all sorts of problems installing drivers and other software, but I won't go into that ...). So I installed skype with no problems:

$ sudo su | sudo apt-get install skype

And it worked fine. So the next thing I did was buy a webcam. I had one delivered through amazon. None of the cheap ones said they were linux compatible, but i through caution to the wind, and got myself one for 31 dollars.

Of course, it came with a cd with windows drivers, and nothing else. After a couple of hours trawling through the web I sort-of semi installed the drivers for it, using the usual linux user forums. Initially, I couldn't get anything to work properly with it - I tried numerous programs (cheese, camorama, XawTV, MoviePlayer, VLC ...). Eventually I got VLC and camorama do work with it. Don't even ask me how now - i remember just applying my usual tenacity to it, and slamming my monkey fists into the keyboard until i hit the right combination of letters and symbols which would tell the program I had a camera, where it was, and what drivers it needed. It probably looked a little something like this (or equally as hideous)

$ sudo jhas -jh 837afm$^&qeiuhn>>KOUUIG4n we8f-&hcjku8hujbn ok?

Right, so after I wiped the blood of the monitor I turned to skype. Crap - skype for linux ''currently doesn't support webcams'' -aaaargh!!! Ok, fine, I can still call and I can text message? No. Skype for linux "currently doesn't support sms messaging". Great - so I can't even txt message. All windows and mac skype users can txt message. Macs run on a LINUX KERNEL and they can txt message!!! The skype developers obviously just cant be bothered to write the code necessary. Or maybe they think that all linux users only have nerdy friends, who are all messaging each other over the internet because thats where they spent 99% of their lives. Erm, no comment

There's nothing quite like skype thats free and open source. So, I went back to the forums, going on the assumption that it must be possible, and that some wonderful person would have either figured a way to crack into the program and unlock the functionality to txt message, or written a new program to interface with skype and allow it to be able to send text messages.

Unlikely as it sounds, and the reason why I make this post, is because not only someone has, but it works. IT WORKS!!! Ha ha ha ha ha in your face! I know this is sad but I'm so happy with this result - i feel like the little orphan boy born with no opportunities and no hopes, who happens to stray across a wadge of bank notes, unsighted, in the dirty street. They have fallen out of a passing carriage. There's a massive grin across my grubby little urchin face. IThere's another eason for my post - to sing the praises of those geeks who toil for hours writing these impenetrable programs, and upload them onto the web for everyone to use.

Next time you see a computer nerd, give him a little squeeze for me.

Don't get me wrong, the solution isnt perfect. Its a little clunky and temperamental, but its all we have and i found it and it works! Ok, so this is what you do: there are two things to download and install. The first is a program language written in python which allows links to skype to be made, and interfacing from the command line. You download it from here. Downlaod the tarball named 'Skype4Py-', untar it into a directory somewhere (like your desktop), then in the terminal make that directory your working directory and type:

$ sudo su | python install

It basically allows you to, within python, talk to the skype program and, if your clever enough, get it to do things for you. I tried to write a couple of rudimentary python scripts to do stuff with it, but it would have basically meant learning a new coding language, which I'm not really prepared to do just to send a few txt messages! Turns out I dont have to because someone called Rafael Laboissiere has already done it. As explained here, you install the 'skysentials' program easily:

$ wget
$ sudo dpkg -i skysentials_1.0.1-1_all.deb

Then, open a konsole (if you havent got konsole type # sudo apt-get update, then #sudo apt-get install konsole) by typing

$ konsole

Then open 2 windows. As superuser, type # skype in one - skype appears, and you sign in as per usual. In the other window, type #skysentials. A gui appears which allows you to send texts via skype, working out the cost automatically. Brilliant!

to skype software developers - is this capability latent within skype for linux, and if so why hasnt it been unlocked for users?

to rafael and the developers of skype4Py - you really are clever and unsung, thank you

and to everyone else, goodnight and happy texting, whatever OS you use ...

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