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Vonage iPhone, BlackBerry Mobile VoIP Apps: Better Late Than Never?

More than eight years after signing up its first residential phone customer, Vonage is finally becoming a real VoIP company. Despite being the name most associated in the public mind with VoIP, Vonage actually has spent most of its time pretending to be a conventional phone company. It offered little that AT&T didn't, except a slightly lower price. Recently, however, it has belatedly begun adding other ways to use its service which take advantage of VoIP's unique capabilities. The latest additions are applications for iPhone and BlackBerry phones.

The new applications use software downloaded to the handsets to provide cheap international calling via the Vonage network. That's particularly attractive because cellular international rates are inordinately high. The iPhone app routes calls via either Wi-Fi or cellular links. The Wi-Fi option sends them through nearby hotspots and then over the Vonage VoIP network at inexpensive rates. It even works at overseas hotspots, which makes it especially useful for travelers. A related application for the iPod touch allows Wi-Fi calling only.

The cellular option kicks in when the iPhone user is not near a hotspot. When it recognizes calls dialed to international numbers, the application intercepts them and routes them to local Vonage gateways. From there they travel cheaply overseas via the same Vonage network. Such calls use local cellular minutes but not costly international cellular circuits. The option is only available in the U.S., and of course not for the iPod touch. The BlackBerry application allows calls only via cellular links.

The mobile apps represent a belated updating of Vonage's longtime approach to telephony. For most of its history, the VoIP pioneer mainly emulated traditional residential phone service. Users plugged their standard phones into a Vonage analog adapter which was itself plugged into their broadband Internet connection. They then could make and receive calls just as they would on the regular landlines that Vonage replaced. Providing such a familiar user experience was probably necessary to reassure customers worried about trying what they considered an unproven technology. But it meant the service had little to attract users except the lower price it offered.

More recently, Vonage introduced soft phones for its "Pro" customers paying $35 per month for premium services. That allowed them to make calls from their laptops while on the road. Although the move would have seemed obvious long ago, Vonage didn't offer the software until July 2008 for Windows, and until March 2009 for Macintosh. Likewise, the new mobile applications significantly lag those of companies such as Truphone and 8x8. It will soon become clear whether late is better than never.


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