Thursday, June 23, 2011

Which Phone Do You Use?

It doesn't necessarily say anything about my age to admit remembering the days of the Long Distance Wars. (I mean, I could have read about it in history books.)

There was a time when the difference between long distance companies was very interesting to us. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in advertising to distinguish for us between the one that could hear a Pin Drop and the one that loved your Friends and Family.

As Long Distance gave way to the age of the cell phone, the names of the players changed, but some things remained the same.

One thing that persisted was the practice by phone companies of using contracts designed to bind the customer into a long term commitment. Another is the practice of using complex and multi-faceted pricing plans that leave consumers confused about what to ask for.

Nonetheless, it seems that cell phone usage has become so common that many households are completely abandoning their traditional land lines. The ready availability of cell phones at all price ranges and nearly ubiquitous coverage has rendered the old House Phone as archaic as Rabbit Ears or the afternoon newspaper.

Increasingly in the past year, I've found that many of my colleagues and co-workers opt for conversations over Skype as an alternative to using their cell phones. Among those who grasp that Skype's service is really not only for calling abroad or screen sharing, the practice of setting up multi-point meetings with other Skype users is becoming common.

In a way, Skype assaults the domain previously held by not only cell carriers, but also such web conference services as GoToMeeting and WebEx, and popular conference call options such as FreeConference.com. Even as analysts question the wisdom of Microsoft's acquisition of the VOIP company and its assets, those who use the service vigorously worry that the Redmond software giant may tamper with or destroy one of their favorite unsung technologies.

It may not matter though, because Google has been quietly rolling out services that match Skype functionality and further assault the decaying remains of the long distance and cell phone markets. Users of Gmail can now make calls from their computer directly to the phone numbers of anyone in their contact list (or for that matter, anyone whose number they can dial manually).  Skype users can make calls to their contacts with telephones, but the owner of the telephone must pay for the transport between the computer and their phones.

To say that another way, if I want to call you with Skype, you must have a (free) Skype account and you must install the (free) Skype software. Further, if you want the call routed to your phone instead of your computer, you'll pay for the minutes we talk when you're configured this way. Google Talk in contrast, will allow me to call your phone without charging either of us, and if you have an active Google account, I can call you on your computer as well.

So the choices available to you for calling others continue to proliferate and confuse most of us. There is no doubt but that next year will bring even more surprises and advances.

So stay tuned!