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Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström

Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström at London's Kingly Club on April 8, 2005. Photograph by Jonas Karlsson.

Skype's the Limit

Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis are the geek stars of "disruptive technology." First their file-sharing site, Kazaa, soared from Napster's ashes. Now the Scandinavian team has plans to rewire the planet—wirelessly—with Skype.

by Brett Forrest September 2005

Some people don't like change. Change doesn't much care.

But when you're the guys doing the changing, manners still count. Let them down easy. Speak in code, as if a kid were in the room. Refer to the pivotal event as the "Y meeting," and make sure no one is listening in. Have a quick look around the café, where the dark-goggled figures are staring blanks into the light.

It's full sun in Cannes, February, with the sea at dignified ripple and the crêpe dealers yawning flecks of spit into the chocolate. Meantime, the boutique streets are floating in color-coded nametags. Gray-haired conventioneers roam in suits the shade of gloom, taking stock of the future all around them. It comes fast, and how odd it can look. A few of the old industrialists wear the hands-free cords of their cell phones plugged into one ear and looped over the other, bringing a bar across the face like a football helmet's. Sometimes it's better to exit the game.

You can be old for only so long. And when you're sucking wind off the squeaky-kneed $300 billion telephone industry, then old may as well be dead. A great change is already on its way.

The figures plotting the shift, in this Cannes café, are slope-shouldered and Scandinavian, one six feet four, the other six-five. Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis have traveled to France as part of their continuing effort to hijack the way the world communicates. In 2000, these Internet radicals created Kazaa, the file-sharing company that helped sabotage the record industry. With their new program, Skype, all they want to do is commandeer all the phones in the world. Equipped with boyish energy and one lazy eye each, the partners divide their days among London, Luxembourg, and subzero Estonia, where Skype rolls out—with very little overhead and without that Silicon Valley chatter. Zennström and Friis believe they have cracked the code that will rewire the planet, wirelessly.

The time for their Y meeting has arrived, and the two delegates march past the red Ferrari, parked flagrantly outside the door, and into the beach-street hotel. The bar here hangs sweaty with the sex reek of money rubbing together, the high clatter of capital bouncing off the four walls. Strangers approach. "I'll be watching for you," says one teeth-showing suntan. A man in tasseled loafers proclaims "this whole thing" to be "massive." The principals slip the clutches, keeping it all ice cold, until at last there is Y, taking the form of three men rather like the others.

A fresh coat of gleam covers the gums as the introductions go round, the bows going semi-deep. But when it comes to the last man, a great panic shakes through the Y group. This person is an outsider, a member of the press. Like a rich girl in the wrong neighborhood, the lead agent from Yahoo clutches the rope around his neck. He shoves his trade-show nametag under cover of his suit coat. Officially, then, this meeting hasn't taken place, and, officially, no one in this room of touch-tone power needs to worry over that big sleep coming on.

It's the first night of this once-a-year paddock session for the international mobile-communications cartel, and already it's clear who wears the pretty dress. Skype is the word, and those who don't sweat it or want a piece of it appear to constitute a dwindling minority. Simply, Skype is a virtually bug-free computer program that allows you to make telephone calls over the Internet anywhere in the world. Skype is not the only company of its type, nor was it the first. But people who know about these things believe that nearly all phone calls will soon run over the Internet, even cellular calls, and that little, 140-employee Skype will force the world's telephone giants to accept the new religion or be soundly routed—and probably both. Skype calls transmit as clearly as regular calls, and, you see, they are free.

Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, separates your voice into small pieces, transmits it like an e-mail, then reconstitutes it for the person on the receiving end. All the big companies have already jumped into VoIP, avoiding the F.C.C. tolls and fees that help make regular phone service as expensive as it is. Some say it may be too late to stop Skype from becoming the broadband Ma Bell.

Night is getting on when three Korean girls in negligée cocktail dresses slip through the crowd, carrying electric violins on their way to the aft stage. The yacht yaws to port as the group saws into a number that no one can understand. This isn't the only song in town. The boat sits on yacht row, made up here for the 3GSM World Congress. Stately seagoing tubs rented to BlackBerry, LG, Philips, Cisco Systems, Siemens, Toshiba, and other firms of varying size and ambition bob in one another's faint wakes. Flaky hors d'oeuvres issue all down the line.

If you were to scan the group on this yacht (rented by the P.D.A./mobile-phone producer I-Mate, which, like Motorola, has signed a deal to pre-package its models with Skype) and then guess who is responsible for all the noise in Cannes, you would be forgiven for choosing the violinists. Over in the corner, a linguistic tiff continues.

"Danish is bastardized Swedish," says Zennström, who is from Sweden.

"Yes, well, Swedish is a derivative of Danish," says Friis, from Denmark.

The two code talkers sit on a creamy leather couch, looking very much like just about anybody, rather than the grenade-tossing principals of a revolution. Yet that is how they have been regarded since 2000—as revolutionaries by some, rubbish-bin raccoons by others—the year all technophiles caught their scent.

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