It's a top feature of Internet phone service that few bother with: the ability to use it anywhere, making and taking calls from the same number at the same low price, even if you're halfway around the world.
The buzz kill to this dreamy capability is that you usually need either to haul along an adapter to hook up a regular phone to the Internet or install software on any computer you want to call from, a requirement that usually limits you to your own laptop.
Removing that hurdle is the premise behind the V-Phone, Vonage Holdings Corp.'s key-chain device that plugs into any USB port on any Windows-based computer to provide instant Internet calling to and from your number.
The $40 stick — really just a USB drive pre-loaded with Vonage software and your account ID — couldn't be much easier to use. Upon inserting the V-Phone into the USB port, the software boots automatically in most cases, displaying an a small orange window with number pad. Depending on the computer, it took anywhere from 30 seconds to 90 seconds to complete this instant setup, which includes online authentication between the device and Vonage's servers.
If the dialing window failed to appear, usually all that was needed was a click on the orange "V" icon in the system tray or a quick trip to "My Computer" to click the drive with the V-Phone. Only in one instance, on my office computer, the application encountered a conflict with the Windows operating system that required a slightly unnerving fix that involved renaming drives.
Since nothing is loaded on the computer's hard drive during setup, there's no need to gum up a friend's machine with extra software — making it less likely you'll get that look of dismay when you're messing with someone else's very personal computer. Just disconnect the device, and all the icons and any other trace of your doings vanish.
The device comes with its own jack for standard cell-phone earphones, a set of which Vonage includes in the package. This jack is a big plus, as it means you don't need to find the separate sound and audio ports on a computer, and in the case of a desktop machine, you needn't unplug the speakers to plug in your earphones.
One word of caution about the Vonage headset. Curiously, the sound quality on several calls seemed much clearer on my end than for the person speaking with me. The problem eased some when I held the dangling microphone closer to my mouth.
That said, the sound was certainly on par with many wireless calls, and when indoors, I often found myself using the V-Phone, my laptop and a Wi-Fi connection instead of my cell.
The price tag doesn't include a $10 activation fee and $10 for shipping. The V-Phone is available online now through Vonage. Starting in September, it will be sold by several major retailers with a $40 rebate.
Calling plans are priced the same as for a traditional Vonage account: $15 a month for 500 minutes, $25 for unlimited residential service and $35 for business use.
Importantly, this product is being positioned as a mobile tool, particularly for the business users Vonage has struggled to attract. It's not being marketed as a replacement for the standard home-based Vonage adapter that connects a phone with the broadband line and rarely gets unplugged.
Each V-Phone is programmed with a specific number and calling plan, and the company hopes and expects to generate new revenue as current customers sign up for an additional V-Phone account rather than transfer an existing Vonage number to the device.
The company isn't offering an option where you can have both an adapter and a V-Phone programmed with the same phone number. So if you do choose to port an existing Vonage number to a V-Phone, you'd essentially be turning off your home phone every time you venture out with the gadget in tow.
With rivals big and small cutting prices and even giving away Web phone service, an industry pioneer like Vonage needs to innovate to survive, let alone remain the market leader. Certainly, as evidenced by the steep decline in Vonage's stock after its recent initial public stock offering, many doubt the company's future.
This new product is in fact novel. It made mobile Internet-based calling enough of a snap that it could easily change user behavior, possibly driving more usage or stealing minutes from cell phones. With the automated setup and single-prong jack, it takes a simplifying leap past existing devices, including some USB drives that run eBay Inc.'s popular Skype service or the VoiceStick from i2Telecom International Inc.
The problem is that it appears to be such a technological no-brainer — and thus not an easily patentable no-brainer — it's hard to imagine that rival offerings won't arrive soon.