VoIP at CES: From Geeks to Grandmas

We pre-sample the flood of VoIP-related announcements that will pour forth at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

By Ed Sutherland | Posted Jan 7, 2008
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For consumers, VoIP is known for two characteristics: an unintelligible acronym and an exasperating tangle of wires and boxes. However, the mantra of this year's CES is moving VoIP from geeks to grandmas.

VoIP, be it Vonage or Cisco, spent much of 2006 winning over first adopters, a brave group through which new technology filters into wider use. However, the transition of Internet telephony hit a roadblock as consumers found VoIP wasn't necessarily plug-n-play and enterprises asked what else was IP-based telephone service than an even-cheaper phone call.

"This stuff can't be a science project," Will Stofega, IDC's VoIP research manager, told VoIPplanet.com as he prepared for this week's CES in Las Vegas. "Cheap phone calls are interesting for a year, then everyone gets it," he said.

"Once you get past early adopters, the more you make it easier," said Stan Schatt, VoIP analyst at ABI Research. "The question is now: 'Can you get grandma?' "Schatt was referring to the expected avalanche of products combining VoIP capabilities with routers, hubs, modems, phones, and other devices.

Even before CES opened its doors, companies were announcing voice-enabled devices.

Motorola, which makes many of the cable modems offered by service providers, earlier this month announced its SURFboard Digital Voice Modem and integrated DECT cordless phone. The device provides two VoIP lines plus a base station for DECT cordless phones. The move "begins the process of converging the home cordless telephone system with the broadband modem," Motorola spokesman Katherine Wiesner told VoIPplanet.com

In another nod to the move toward capturing the consumer VoIP market, the new modem also "overcomes the current technical hurdles consumers and service providers face," the Motorola spokeswoman said.

Netgear says bundling VoIP with its new products is part of its 'All Access Home' program launched at CES. The company unveiled a Wireless Cable Voice Gateway which uses channel bonding to produce 100Mbps downloads for voice. Like Motorola, Netgear also introduced a voice gateway that bundles a VDSL modem, router, 802.11n access point, a DECT cordless phone base station, and two VoIP ports.

In response, we'll likely see networking giant Cisco bundle VoIP in some of its Linksys products, Schatt predicted. "The small-and-medium business market is a natural fit for VoIP," he said.

Also making early waves at CES is Skype, the Web-based VoIP service owned by online auction giant eBay. This year could be when Skype makes another push into the enterprise market, Stofega said. Skype, while more successful in the consumer area, is well entrenched in the enterprise, if not officially.

Sony said Play Station Portable (PSP) users will be able to use Skype, beginning in late January. The deal will allow PSP users to make free Skype-to-Skype calls or pay for SkypeOut and SkypeIn calls.

In a possible clue to similar announcements, semiconductor maker Broadcom said it will reveal "new partnerships" around VoIP phones. Earlier this year, Broadcom said its chips would power a Panasonic Skype phone.

Schatt said the Wi-Fi Alliance has already certified more than 100 Wi-Fi/VoIP handsets, with enterprise certification coming soon.

Monitor manufacturer Samsung, following the trend toward bundling VoIP with all sorts of products, over the weekend announced the first "VoIP-enabled network monitor." The SyncMaster 220TN includes a 22-inch screen, a microphone, and a two mega-pixel camera. The $1,249 monitor is well suited for airports, hotel lobbies, or hospitals where security is important.

We're likely to see more similar examples, said Stofega. "Voice drives the revenue of everything today."

Beyond CES, more education is needed for VoIP to gain mainstream consumer status. "People are still confused about what VoIP is," Schatt said.

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