By accident I just stumbled across the web site for a startup that’s about to begin hawking a $99 widget that attaches to an iPod, enabling the device to connect to cellular data services – both the fast-fading 3.5G technology being called WiMax and the rapidly-emerging 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE). And of course the iPod already does have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability built in. So the only thing missing to turn the iPod into a pseudo-iPhone is a VoIP client, which this startup is not providing.
Indeed, via Wi-Fi capability, I’ve seen some enterprising folk (such as my nine-year-old granddaughter) use their iPods, when they can get Wi-Fi access, to “call” people using various free voice and video applications.
But the addition of nearly everywhere connectivity, via the cellular network, ups the ante substantially. It means that with a VoIP client, the iPod literally becomes an iPhone (albeit lacking some of the telephonic features Apple builds into the iPhone, which is why I call it a pseudo-iPhone) – at no more than one third the cost of an iPhone. (The $99 widget, by the way, is also available in a version that turns 3G iPhones into 4G devices, letting users eke a little more life out of their devices. Apple must love that.)
Whether or not this startup (http://www.freedompop.com for those who are curious) has a business plan that will succeed we won’t know for some time but that issue is separate from the technological implication of what it’s doing. And that implication is that mobile telephony is, over what may be a fairly brief amount of time, going to migrate to a purely IP model. Indeed both Verizon and AT&T within the past few weeks have unveiled new pricing plans that reflect that expectation.
And I suspect it won’t be long before just about every VoIP carrier has an app to turn any mobile device into a virtual extension of their office or home phone. Right now Phone.com, for instance, is paving the way with its Mobile Office application, which can be used as a native application on Android and Blackberry phones or by any cell phone with a browser including iPhones and Windows Phones, by going to http://m.phone.com. That application includes the ability, via wireless broadband, to perform most any function available from Phone.com, although it doesn’t yet use VoIP for actual phone conversations.
And to be fair I should note that some of the “free” text, voice and video messenger services can even place phone calls – so one could argue that the software to turn the iPod into an iPhone already exists. I would add, though, that those call capabilities are not included in the word “free,” incoming calls don’t really work, and there is a paucity of features. What we’ve gotten so far is just a tantalizing look at what’s coming down the track. And I should also note that an account with Phone.com, for instance, can cost the same or less than the premium versions of “free” services, and comes with a massive list of features.
The bottom line is that the technology used for today’s “voice” calls will be a thing of the past – VoIP will be the “voice” of mobility, running as just another app on a device that is essentially a computer with a tiny screen.