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Early Skype developer Jaan Tallinn splashes cash in latest funding for Matrix-based instant messenger Element

As Microsoft doubles down on efforts to kill Skype persuade users to chat with Teams, former Skype developer Jaan Tallinn has dropped some cash into the latest funding round for open-source IM client Element.

Element, which provides a messaging app for and contributes development to the open communication protocol Matrix, has raised $30m in Series B funding from investors such as Protocol Labs and Metaplanet, the latter being a fund set up by Tallinn.

Tallinn, also partly responsible for the file-sharing app Kazaa, sold his shares in Skype when it was snapped up by eBay in 2005 for $2.6bn. eBay sold Skype in 2009 to an investment group which then flogged the messaging platform to Microsoft in 2011 for $8.5bn.

“Me and messaging go back a long way,” Tallinn told The Register, “I’m very partial to IM and… neutral platforms.”

Tallinn also spoke of the original peer to peer nature of Skype, the implementation of which didn’t lend itself too well to devices such as mobile phones, and gave Microsoft credit for taking a centralised approach.

“I do think it was a correct engineering decision for Microsoft,” he said. However, “I think the future of the communications kind of has to be peer to peer.”

Ten years on, Microsoft would rather like its users to consider Teams as their primary chat app. It has, however, also committed to support Skype for a few more years (and doubtless further enrage users with more user interface tweaks).

The open-source Matrix is all about real-time communication and securing conversations with E2E encryption. Element provides what it describes as an “all-in-one secure chat app for teams, friends and organisations,” although (other than a free personal tier) consumer and business users must pay a subscription for the service.

Skype was originally a peer-to-peer service, but things are somewhat more centralised nowadays. Matrix, on the other hand, is decentralised. It also has over 35 million addressable users and more than 75,000 deployments. Not quite in the same league as Skype and Teams, but the 190 per cent growth of Matrixin the last year is nothing to be sniffed at.

The funding announcement comes hot on the heels of the news that Germany’s entire healthcare system is to adopt Matrix-based communications.

As for what the money will be spent on, “Element’s funding means there’s continued significant investment in the Matrix protocol, which hugely benefits the entire Matrix ecosystem,” said Matthew Hodgson, CEO of Element and technical co-founder of Matrix.

Amandine Le Pape, Element COO and co-founder of Matrix, insisted the company didn’t have to take new investment, but was keen to get Element’s app ready for mainstream consumers.

Noting that refugees from the likes of WhatsApp might find things a bit complicated, Le Pape told The Register that plans were afoot “to improve the experience and make it simpler,” through the release of community-management tools such aa Spaces.

Hodgson highlighted “Three big Strategic Initiatives” expected off the back of the investment. These include a doubling-down on the peer-to-peer technology, decentralised end-to-end encrypted audio and video conferencing, and building features to curate content.

And Tallinn? Despite his Skype smarts, he told us that other than some architectural chats he did not plan to go poking about in the code. He did, however, ponder hiring a team to see “if we can do something like email integration, for example, without going disturbing the work of the central team.”

Other messaging vendors, such as Slack, have famously suggested sticking a knife into email, but Tallinn has a different take: “it seems to be like really hard to kill”. He said the claims from platforms of doing away email need to be “taken with [a] very big grain of salt.”

Getting email over Matrix is also a suggested Google Summer of Code project.

The investment also comes amid increased demand for remote working and a growing awareness of users about online privacy and the fact the maybe, just maybe, some of the tech giants might be a bit creepy when it comes to surveillance capitalism. ®


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