Two VoIP telephonesVoice Over IP, otherwise known as VoIP is nothing really new. It’s been talked about and hyped for years now; however like other technologies such as Bluetooth, it’s never really appeared in wide release and reached a mass market appeal. If you’re not familar with just what VoIP is, in a nutshell it’s when you use a data network for voice. Instead of using a telephone (a voice network), you use a data network, such as the Internet. Why would you want to do that? Well the biggest reason is price. If you use your Internet connection, which is typically a flat-rate monthly fee, then you don’t have to pay for long distance charges.
If the idea of not having to pay for long distance charges appeals to you, you may be wondering why there aren’t more VoIP products out there on the market, or maybe why you haven’t even heard of it. The biggest hurdle is that it’s a new technology and thus there aren’t a lot of elegent solutions that are easy to use “out-of-the-box”. The only instances that I’m aware of where VoIP technolgies have been implemented consistentaly and successfully are with large corporations.

Here’s a typical example, a company has an office in the States and an office in Singapore. The company establishes a data connection between the two offices so that for all intents and purposes they are on the same network. So even though there’s servers in the US and Singapore, they appear to be side-by-side. With their networks in place, they then add VoIP technologies to the mix so that the two offices can communicate between each other over their data network. The end result is that the system works no differently than a regular voice call. The end user doesn’t notice any difference in the quality, or overall experience. Only the one cutting the checks sees the cost savings and in this scenario it’s usually well worth it. 🙂

Starting With The Palm
The pa1m0ne Tungsten CWhen the Tungsten C was released, there was some hype that the device could “one day” be used as a VoIP telephone via the use of a headset. In fact, the headset jack is similar to the kind you’d find on a cell phone and thus is not in stereo. Most users would have preferred a stereo headphone jack so that they could listen to mp3s on their device in higher quality than mono, but pa1mOne’s response was that VoIP was going to be used more. In other words, pa1m0ne designed a device with the intention that the user would use it for VoIP. You’d think that would mean that the VoIP software wasn’t “vaporware” right? 😛
Last year I had a conversation with the product manager for the Tungsten C at pa1mOne. I asked him if he’s seen any type of saturation with VoIP products either for the Tungsten C, or standard PCs. His paraphrased answer was “Not really. There appears to be some interest in personal/home users, but that’s about it” He saw the only market wanting to take advantage of VoIP technologies are “college kids”, or those willing to sacrifice ease of use and functionality for the cost savings. In other words, most people would just as soon pick up the phone and make a call, but if you’re in college, your money is tight and if you can make free long distance calls standing on your head and using a mouse with your toes you’d do it.

My cursory experience with VoIP led me to the same conclusions, but I felt it was worth another look. If the Tungsten C could be used as a VoIP telephone, then I could see sitting in a coffee shop making calls on my Palm OS device while I sipped a double espresso. If that’s not Tech Chic, I don’t know what is, so I was off in search of it. 8)

Tungsten C Products
As I stated earlier, the Tungsten C was released to the public with the hype that the handheld could one day be used as a VoIP device. The operative word is “one day”, so the first order of business was to find the original press release and hunt down this elusive developer of this VoIP vaporware. That led me to vli and their Palm GPhone product. At first glance, it would appear that they haven’t released the Palm OS GPhone yet. However, if you sign up for the 60 day demo, you’ll see that there IS software available.

I registered for the 60-day demo, and promptly downloaded the Palm Gphone software and installed it. I created another demo account and installed the software on my PC. I was able to make calls between the two devices just fine. However, when I went to try and connect with some friends I never once was able to connect. On top of that the software is has a horrible UI and is very buggy. In the end I just gave up because it flat out didn’t work well.

What About The PC?
With my hopes of downing espresso coffees all the while making calls with my T|C dashed, I decided to forge on and see if I could find a VoIP solution for my PC. I had already tried the PC version of GPhone and didn’t like the experience. I was able to talk to two friends, but the quality was poor and the software was very hard to use.

The next product I found was called FlashTalk that one of my friends Greg Gaub recommends. The quality is good, but there is a charge for using the service after the 14-day demo expires. At $3.95 a month it’s not that it’s cost prohibitive. It’s just that since you have to convince your friends to join as well, telling them to also shell out another $30 a year is a hurdle that most friends won’t want to make.

Just when I thought that finding a free solution was not to be, I stumbled upon a product called Skype. Skype is made by the original inventors of Kazaa and provides a free VoIP service in an Instant Messenger style format. You add your friends to your buddy list and instead of instant messaging them, you can actually talk with them instead. The setup and install was a piece of cake and it actually found a microphone I didn’t even know I had installed on my system! :O In a few minutes I was up and running and able to send and receive VoIP phone calls to my friend. And it gets even better. Skype has a Linux and Pocket PC version as well. Hopefully they will release a Palm OS version soon.

My Experience With Skype
Skype LogoAs I stated earlier, Skype installed super easily and was able to find my microphone and work through my firewall with little or no fuss. This is truly one of the easiest applications I’ve ever installed and given the fact that it’s a fairly technical piece of software I was VERY surprised.

I convinced a couple of friends to download and install the program too and we were able to connect and communicate quickly and easily. The audio quality was superb! I was amazed at how well the audio sounded – it was as good, if not better than a normal phone call. However there are a few things that I don’t like.

1. Contact List Is Local – this is a P2P app, so it makes sense that it’s like this, but by not having your buddy list stored on the Skype server means that if you have more than one computer, you have to add all your buddies all over again. Sounds minor, but it’s a real pain.

2. You Have To Invite Your Friends – this is the nature of the beast and there’s nothing really that you can do about it, but having to convince your friends to try yet ANOTHER messenger client is a hassle. Given the fact that most major IMs have some form of voice chat, it makes Skype that much harder of a sell. It would be great if Yahoo would incorporate Skype technology into their client. hint… hint.. 😉

3. There’s no Palm OS Client – Hopefully there will be one in the future. The fact that there’s already a Linux client is a bit surprising. I would have thought that developing the Palm OS client would have been easier since there’s really only one major Palm OS device with built-in Wi-Fi, the Tungsten C.

Ever Heard Of A Phone?
I’m sure there are many of you that think, “Hell, I’d just rather pick up the phone.” and I have to say that I’m in somewhat of an agreement with you. Being tethered to your computer in order to make free phone calls isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Besides, most people are using their mobile phones for their long distance calling since it’s included for free. I too use my cell phone for most of my calls and thus don’t really use Skype much.

Yet there are some areas were VoIP is preferable over a normal phone call. For example, if you have friends, or relatives that live outside of the United States, VoIP starts to look real attractive. Adding International long distance to your phone plan, regardless of the carrier, adds up after awhile. Since Skype is free, making those calls and being able to talk for hours sound pretty nice. I have friends with loved ones in the Dominican Republic and Japan and for them, Skype could prove to be a really nice solution.

Knowing this, Skype has recently added a service called Skype Out, which allows you to place a phone call using Skype and connect to any regular telephone. You may be using Skype, but the recipient of your call can be on their home phone, or mobile phone. The global rate is, as of this writing, 0.017 Euros which is about 2 cents per minute. Not all countries are supported in the Global plan, but it looks as if you can call just about anywhere.

Taking It To The Next Level
Vonage LogoIf this type of service appeals to you, then you should also check out Vonage. Vonage was one of the first companies to come out with a broadband phone and clearly it’s not a fluke product, because more-and-more cable operators are beginning to offer similar products. In a nutshell, you buy a box that hooks up to your broadband connection and that then becomes your home phone. You can call any regular phone and more importantly, people can call you. Pricing plans range from $15 a month for 500 minutes of US long distance, up to $30 for unlimited US long distance. There’s also a bunch of cool options with Vonage.

1. Choose your area code – if most of your long distance is from a particular state, you can choose an area code from that area. This allows people from that area code to call you at a local number.

2. Travel with your box – That’s right, you can take your box with you can your number goes with you. So if you’re going down to the beach for a week and you know that there will be broadband where you’re staying, then you can plug in your Vonage box and everything works just like it does at home. This also means moving doesn’t change your number – very cool.

3. Call from your computer – Even though Vonage relies on a box connected to your high-speed Internet connection, you can use a computer as well. This allows you to have both flavors of VoIP for the price of one. With the SoftPhone you can manage your phone line just as if you were there, even though you may be at the downtown coffee shop.

4. In network calls are free – If you know of other people on Vonage, then any calls to them are totally free.

But What About Video?
The real linchpin in the adoption of VoIP I think resides in the ability to make video calls as well as voice. That adds a whole other level of complexity to the equation and given the fact the VoIP is just now starting to see some adoption, adding voice to the mix isn’t easy. However, some vendors have found a way.

My buddy Dan lives in Guam at the moment, yet he’s able to stay in touch with his family and friends with the use of the D-Link DVC-1000 Broadband Videophone. Although a true VoIP solution per se, it does provide voice and video calling and regardless of what you call it, it works. Of course it requires each party to have a device, so it’s really only for those people who are remote that you know you want to speak with.

Other alternatives are to use the built-in video features of Yahoo, AIM, or iChat and those all work reasonably well too. The advantage of the Broadband Video Phone is that since it hooks up to your TV, you don’t have to have a computer to use it. As long as you have a broadband connection, you’re good to go. So it’s perfect for your technically challenged friends and family that prefer the idea of using a remote instead of a PC.

VoIP Is Here To Stay
It’s clear that voice networks as we once knew them are rapidly changing. VoIP is opening the door to a whole new way of thinking about how you send and receive a voice call. Already you can place calls for free via your computer, or your PPC handheld. With the addition of a broadband phone, you can dial anywhere, or add video to the call. Once the telecom players enter the market, then things could really take off.

And the big boys are getting into the game. Just this summer, AT&T recently announced that they were abandoning the consumer long distance market. That’s right. AT&T no longer wants to pursue residential long distance – they think it’s dead. Instead, they are focusing their efforts on… wait for it… VoIP. 🙂

So even if you think that picking up the phone is easier than all the VoIP business, in the next five years that phone in your hand just might be a VoIP phone. In the meantime, those of us willing to bleed a little with the cutting edge, there’s a lot of product out there to whet your whistle.

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