Phone calls over the Internet, made using voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology, was popular at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this year, with a number of companies showing off handsets and other peripherals to make it easier for the average user to connect to low-cost or free voice calls.
Many of the products were new handsets that connect to laptops or PCs via a universal serial bus (USB) plug, although a few companies showed off wireless handsets able to make calls directly over Wi-Fi signals, freeing users from their computers.
YapperNut delivered one of the more unique USB handsets: a computer mouse that doubles as a phone.
"People might forget to bring some peripherals with them on trips, but nobody forgets a mouse," chief marketing officer at YapperNut, Harrison Tang, said.
The company is banking on growth in VOIP to raise interest in the mouse, dubbed YapperMouse, which vibrates and rings when calls come in, can hold your favorite ringtone, and only needs to be picked up to answer a call.
YapperMouse works with Skype and includes a speaker phone function so users can surf the Internet and talk at the same time. It's available online at: http://www.yappernut.com/def/en/yapperMouse.htm, for $US29.95.
The company also offered another device at CES, a system to transform regular home telephones into VOIP phones: the YapperBox. Connecting the YapperBox to a PC and any home telephone allows users to make free calls over the Skype network or make cheaper calls to domestic and international phone numbers.
The YapperBox does not do away with a user's current phone service. The pass-through line to a user's traditional phone system is used, so the phone works even if YapperBox is unplugged, the company said. It was unclear if the system would work the same through a cable modem, since the company's information appeared to assume the Internet connection went through the telephone network.
YapperBox only works on computers using a broadband connection and running Windows 2000 or XP. YapperNut's Amy software adds more free services to the box, including voice mail, delayed messaging, and a voice memo function. The unit costs $US49.95 and can be found at http://www.yappernut.com/def/en/yapperBox.htm.
Another company working to turn traditional telephones into VOIP phones is Televolution, which showed off its PhoneGnome appliance at CES. PhoneGnome went a step further than many similar systems at the show by requiring only a broadband Internet connection, no computer, no monthly service fees, subscriptions or activation.
PhoneGnome also determines how to direct calls, so users don't have to try to figure out for themselves whether the person on the other end of the line uses VOIP or not. It also allows users to continue using their own phone number, make emergency calls as normal, and it works during power or Internet outages.
The device is available at http://www.phonegnome.com/store/store.html and the company is currently offering the device for $US119 for one PhoneGnome or $US199 for two.
Finally, two companies at CES promised to begin selling Wi-Fi phones designed for use with the popular VOIP service Skype within the next few months, Taiwan's Accton Technology and the US-based Netgear.
Wi-Fi handsets put a new twist on Internet phone calling by freeing users from having to carry around a notebook PC in order to make a VOIP call. Existing phones designed for Skype and other VOIP services must be connected to a computer. The Netgear and Accton phones don't have to be, although they do require a Wi-Fi signal, which isn't always readily available.
Accton plans to charge $US100-$US150 per handset for its Wi-Fi phones, while Netgear did not have pricing information available.