Ditch Skype for your audio, video and text chats

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Apidech Ninkhlai, 123RF

Apidech Ninkhlai, 123RF

Phoning It In

Linux users have been struggling with a love-hate relationship with the likes of Skype since it was taken over by Microsoft. Now there are many other apps to choose from for your audio, video, and text chatting needs, and each of them has a niche where it excels.

If you want to chat with other people over the Internet, then the possibilities are mushrooming. Facebook Messenger, Google Talk, and WhatsApp are just a few of the options out there. But the software itself is often proprietary, and the operators of these services occupy a position of control over the users. You have to register with the service and use official apps. Anonymous accounts that have self-administered servers or alternative clients are usually not permitted.

Currently, Skype users are starting to feel more of the control. The Linux client has never played a major role with Skype. Even so, new Linux versions for the Skype client were released at intervals, that is until Microsoft took over Skype. Prior to that, user wishes like a 64-bit version remained unfulfilled. Nonetheless, many a Skype user preferred the Linux version since it left out frills and unnecessary indicators.

Alpha Skype

Skype has gradually fallen out of favor with Linux users since it was taken over by Microsoft. There are lots of complaints that it is no longer possible to join conversations [1]. The new Skype for Linux alpha version, the "Linux Version" [2], which was recently released, basically consists of an Electron-based shell [3] wrapped around the Skype web client (Figure 1). Ghetto Skype [4] is a similar solution that has been available for a long time over the Internet. The Skype for Linux alpha version is still lacking important functions. For instance, it cannot deal with video chats.

Figure 1: The alpha version of the completely new Skype client already handles telephone calls; video chats are still not possible.

For this and other reasons, like concerns about service integrity, many Linux users are seeking other ways to communicate. And, although other ways do exist, criteria like cross-platform capability, simplicity, and reliability cause many options to fall by the wayside. This article takes a look at seven potential Skype alternatives even though they seldom fulfill all of the requirements (see Table 1).

Table 1

IM and Audio/Video Conferencing Apps

  Retroshare Ricochet 1.1.2 Ring Signal Tox (uTox) WebRTC
Chat yes yes yes yes yes yes1
Contact list yes yes yes yes yes no
Group chats yes no no no yes yes1
Synchronized chat history no no yes yes no no
Voice/Video chats yes/yes no/no yes/yes yes (only mobile)/no yes/yes yes/yes
Desktop access no no no no yes yes1
File transfer yes no no yes yes yes1
Security/Private Space
Encryption yes yes yes yes yes yes
Central server no no no yes no yes2
Operating Systems
Linux yes yes yes yes yes yes
MacOS X yes yes yes yes yes yes
Windows yes yes yes yes yes yes
Android no no yes yes yes4 yes
iOS no no no yes yes4 yes3
1 Varies with the provider.
2 WebRTC is an open standard. Therefore the user can host a server themselves.
3 The WebKit back-end from Apple Safari still does not handle WebRTC. The open source browser for iOS can.
4 Different features depending on the client.


Retroshare [5] combines a number of different features for encrypted communication under a single interface. The program supports audio/video and text chats. It also supports emails, news groups, and data sharing with friended users, plus if desired, sharing from friend to friend. The program builds a friend-to-friend network (F2F) via Turtle routing [6] so that the user can share data. Unlike the classic peer-to-peer (P2P) network, Retroshare does not route the data to all of the network participants. Instead, the data only flows between friends and friends of friends.

The developers offer the program for Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows under a GPLv2 license. Versions for mobile operating systems do not exist. The project has packages for all of the larger distributions [7] . The developers distinguish between stable and thoroughly tested versions and unstable versions. However, in testing, unstable source could only be installed on a system with Ubuntu 16.04 (Listing 1).

Listing 1

Installing Retroshare

$ sudo add-apt-repository ppa:retroshare/unstable
$ sudo apt update
$ sudo apt install retroshare06

When installing, you should know that the current Retroshare 0.6 is no longer compatible with older versions of the program. This is because the protocol has been fundamentally changed. If there is still an older version of the program in your distribution's package sources, then it is a good idea to manually install the current version.

You will need to create a profile when the program first starts. This is actually just a Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) key. Retroshare will use the mouse cursor movements to create solid random values. You can add friends with this key by exchanging your public key with your Retroshare friends and then adding the friend using the add option found in the application's menubar. The best way to exchange the public key is to do so offline with a USB stick, or, if necessary, you can use email or another chat program. After a friend has been added, the new contact will appear as a friended network node. You can start a chat using the context menu for the contact (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Retroshare offers more than just chats. The program has mail service, forums, and a feed reader in the communications center.

In practice, the Retroshare interface proves to be functional but clunky. The program offers way more functions than just audio, video, and text chats, which forces you to rummage through multiple menus and tabs. Retroshare does not support classic group chats, but with Chat Lobbies , you can converse with multiple people simultaneously. You can open private lobbies and join them only if you have been invited. Public lobbies on the other hand are open to all Retroshare users.

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