Get Going on VOIP for Home Use

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VOIP was, for a very long time, something that we couldn’t get away from in tech media. It’s convenient, it can save you money, it’s not a total pain in the face to set up (something that can be true of traditional phone options), and it’s something that, for most people, hasn’t quite caught on as much as expected.

While a vast number of people have a Skype account and indeed, at any given time there seems to be anywhere between 15 and 25 million people actually logged in to the service, the fact is that there just doesn’t seem to be too much drive towards VOIP for general home use. Still, it’s worth considering, given the potential savings to be had, and especially with the existence of services like SkypeIn, which mean you’re still contactable at the same phone by others.

Services:

As a general rule, we’d recommend Skype when it comes to home-use VOIP, not just because of the fact that it’s relatively easy to set up and very well priced, while they’re all excellent things, but because of it’s practical ubiquity. The fact is that Skype gets the job done with a minimum amount of fuss for all concerned.

While there will be those who bemoan Skype, the fact is that (as long as you’re looking to make outgoing calls to people who don’t have an account) you’re fairly snookered. Skype kind of does it all… at least until we have Google Voice availability in Europe, which doesn’t seem too likely in the near future. The fact is though, that to a large extent, that ubiquity can save trouble.

There’s also the less popular JaJah, but given the fact that so much of the consumer-aimed VOIP hardware boasts “Skype compatible” stickers, it seems as though it might be a case of ‘better the devil you know,’ at least for those who are looking to pick up a handset for use with their VOIP package.

Hardware:

There’s a bit of a conundrum when it comes to around-the-house VOIP hardware that leads to it being a bit of a headache and something you needn’t worry about depending on what you’re looking to do.

There's some really interesting Skype-centric hardware out there 🙂

The first option is one that’s likely already available to just about everyone reading this post, and that’s to just leave it to your PC. Install Skype on the machine itself and plug in a headset with a microphone, in which case just about any old headset should do you fine, as long as your OS recognises that you’ve got it all plugged in.

Of course, that can lead to making calls feeling just a little as though you’re working in a call centre, something that’s perhaps best avoided for anyone who’s a little phobic about call centres or has ever worked in one.

In those cases, it might well be worth your while to pick up a dedicated VOIP handset. They can be had relatively cheaply, and just connect to the back of your PC and, with a quick install, can be made to talk to Skype directly without any massive headaches. It’s all very easy to set up, as long as you’re willing to sit down and find room on your desk for the whole affair.

It’s also welcome for anyone with older relatives who might not be quite as computer savvy, who can simple sit down and dial, then continue as though it were a normal phone. It saves on bother.

That said, do be careful about how you set it up… I have seen a man hook up a Skype-phone arrangement and then forget just how he’d set everything up, meaning he was too afraid to go unplugging everything (he runs a business from home) in case he couldn’t get it all working again. He plays Counter-Strike with his phone wedged between head and shoulder, hoping to hear people coming.

Asus' EEE makes a solid Skype-machine without breaking the bank 🙂

Another excellent, and surprisingly common option, is for everyone in the house to chip in on a relatively low-end netbook, since they generally tend to boast just about everything you’d look for in a Skype device (mic, speakers, wireless and webcam) all wrapped up into one package that can be carried from room to room without bothering anyone. There’s also the fact that netbooks tend to boast solid battery life, even when running something like Skype.

Going Mobile:

Of course, for the moment the big thing we’re waiting to see play out is the push for VOIP on mobile devices. It’s something that’s been spurred by the presence of services like Apple’s App Store for the iPhone and iPod Touch, Google’s Android Market and similar affairs rolled out by both BlackBerry and Palm for their own lines of mobile devices.

Skype Lite for Android is essentially useless, sadly.

While Apple seemed very keen indeed to keep things that might eat into network providers’ profits away from the App Store, it did allow a version of Skype to hit the App Store that would allow users to make calls using Skype as long as they were connected to the internet via Wi-Fi. With the announcement that the iPad was inbound though, it seems that Apple has opened up a little, deciding to allow publication of apps that make VOIP calls using 3G connections, rather than Wi-Fi… which could well end up eating into carrier’s profits if it sees widespread uptake.

Still, it seems relatively unlikely that we’ll see that happening all too soon. As someone currently using an Android-based phone, it’s interesting to see that there’s a Skype app present in the Android store that seems to do everything but allow you to make a voice call. It’d be nice to think that, with 3G capable Skype set to hit the iPhone, an Android version isn’t far behind, but it’s not something Skype has been quick to comment on. Indeed, there’s a six page topic in its support forum asking whether there’ll be a “real” version of the app, but without responses from Skype.

Will the availability of VOIP options on mobile devices hurt mobile networks? It seems relatively likely already, but it’ll also encourage more users to pony up hefty sums for data plans, whether they make abundant use of data or just want to make an international call from time to time. Very likely we’ll see the two even out.

Our country manager, Aaron, is convinced that we’ll see mobile VOIP start to bankrupt carriers as the increased demand for data puts enough stress on networks that they need to upgrade hardware to provide a service for which they won’t be making too much money… seems they’ll likely find a solution before then though.

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