When I was in college I discovered something I thought was pretty cool. I could go to a website called DialPad, click out a phone number on their “keypad”, and call anyone I wanted from my computer. Back in the late 90’s this was a relatively new concept, and was certainly something pretty cool. The geeks out there know that people had been doing this with a modem for some time, but this was much easier and more reliable. I would use a basic PC mic and my stereo speakers that were doubling as computer speakers at the time, and I could talk to people on their phones. There was a small delay, but once one got the hang of it one could talk for quite a while this way.
As much as I liked DialPad, I was able to find another service I liked even better. I don’t recall the name of the website, but it took internet phone calls to a new level. I would type in my phone number, and the number I wished to call. I would then click the connect button in rapid succession until I got a success message. The site was so novel, and since it was free there was always a long line. Once I successfully connected, the website would call my phone, and once I answered would instantly connect me to the person I was calling. No more computer speakers, no more delay in the conversation. The only problem was the 15 minute time limit. All I had to do was click connect again, multiple times, and usually within a minute or two the conversation could resume. I talked for hours at a time with this feature.
By the time I graduated, calling people online was becoming mainstream. They even popularized a method to describe the service, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). As with many free services that suddenly get popular, the companies I was using decided they could make some money, and began charging for the service. That was when I moved on and gave up my hobby of calling from my computer.
A few years went by, and chat software such as Yahoo and MSN started offering chat to chat calls. I was certainly interested, and used the feature from time to time. Ultimately I discovered Skype. Skype had all the features of Yahoo and MSN, but had some extra features. I started using it as my chat service, to the exclusion of Yahoo. Somewhere around this time I also heard of a company called Vonage. Vonage offered VoIP services, but for a monthly subscription of around $20, I didn’t think it was worth my while.
Skype would ultimately bring me back to the VoIP fold. By offering really cheap rates for per use service, and cheap rates for a subscription, I was able to resume calling people from my computer on their phones. No long distance charges, no waiting until 9pm to use my cell phone.
Skype has been useful for personal calls, including the weekly video call to my parents so they can visit with their grandsons. It has also been useful for business needs. I live in an area with spotty cell reception, so when I needed to call into a meeting while tending to my sick kids, I relied on Skype. The meeting lasted for over an hour, and I didn’t pay a thing for it. My monthly subscription is somewhere around $2. I can afford $2 a month. For the value I have already received, it is more than worth it.
The world of VoIP is constantly improving. Both Skype and Vonage can be capitalized on by purchasing a VoIP phone. Some of them look like traditional phones, and connect via Bluetooth instead of the standard USB connection. AT&T sells some pretty good models with these features. I am content with my built-in laptop mic and webcam, so I haven’t upgraded to the traditional phones yet.
VoIP is getting easier and easier to use. It offers reliable service and the price to get started is continually coming down. I recommend Skype, but I have no problem with Vonage other than the price. They do offer a number of features, but if I wanted a traditional phone, I would use a traditional service, not VoIP.
I am looking forward to seeing where the future of VoIP is going. I imagine that video phones will mainstream and then Skype will let you video call a landline. There are numerous possibilities, and each one seems pretty cool to me.