Written by CNET's Rafe Needleman, the Real Technology column appears on CBSNews.com.
Who gives their home phone a second thought these days? Cellular is where it's at: Mobile phones are personal and move with us; they carry our identities. The old, wired "landline" phones tie us down. But while anchored to the past, innovation for the home telephone is not dead. Two giant companies have new and interesting products for consumers that redefine what you can do with a home telephone. One is very smart. One, less so.
Google Voice (CNET review) is the search company's interesting and powerful new telephone service. Based on Grand Central, which Google acquired in 2007, it might make you re-think the utility of your landline home phone.
Google Voice is, essentially, a telephone phone service without its own telephone connections. When you sign up for Google Voice and get a new number for the service (in your own local area code), it lets people call you and leave messages, which you can listen to on your computer, on your personal Google Voice Web page. And once you tell Google Voice where you want to be contacted by voice, it will start automatically routing incoming calls to any phones you want. You can have your Google Voice number redirected to your home phone or your mobile phone or your work phone -- or all at once. You can tell Google Voice that people calling from your group of friends always reach your mobile, or that certain family members never reach you at work. You also get an SMS (text message) inbox for your number. Messages can get forwarded to your mobile phone if you like, and you can reply to them there, or you can see and send messages via your Web-connected computer.
Google Voice will transcribe voicemails left on it (not perfectly, but good enough to get the gist). You can also call out from your Google Voice number by placing a call from your account on the Google Voice Web site -- when you want to make a call, it calls the person you're calling as well as whatever phone you want, and then connects the two of you. (Placing calls from and to U.S. numbers is free; international calls cost money, but the rates are good.)
It also does conference calling and lets you record your phone calls.
While Google Voice is a computer-controlled phone system, it is not, to the user, an Internet or "VOIP" phone. These phones services, offered by companies like Vonage as well as increasingly by broadband providers like Comcast, give the consumer several advantages, including attractive costs and good features, but they rely on the Internet and power connections at you house to work. That means they're not as reliable as a regular landline, and it means the voice quality can vary, from excellent to awful. The Google Voice service, while it's all in the computers at Google, can connect to your existing standard landline phone, removing the variability of home VOIP from the equation.
The service adds to the utility of your old landline (and your office phone as well as your mobile) by making any phone as smart as the Google Voice service overall. If you give people your Google Voice number, they'll be more likely to be able to reach you.
The one big problem with Google Voice is that to use it you have to get a new phone number. That will kill the concept for a lot of people. But on the other hand, it's free, so it's worth experimenting with. Google Voice will be rolling out to the public within the next few weeks.
The Hub is a phone system designed to replace your home phone. It's a VOIP phone, which means it bypasses the traditional, old reliable phone wires, and it's expensive: The phone itself is $199.99 (after rebate) and service is $34.99 a month and requires a two-year contract. It includes unlimited national calling and texts. Wireless extension handsets are also available.
The product's big advantage is supposed to be the phone's large touchscreen, which gives access to Verizon voicemail services, a calling directory, other phone features, and online content. Certainly when it comes to browsing a contact list and controlling advanced features like do-no-disturb settings and conference calling, it beats the pants off of doing the same things from a typical phone keypad. But some of the features on the phone make you wonder if Verizon is really serious about this product.
For example: This is a home phone that can do SMS. That's great. Text messaging is a very useful way to communicate and it's tragic that landline phones can't do it. But the Hub can only send SMS to and receive messages from other Verizon phones. Any other cellular phone on any network can send SMS to any other phone. So can Google Voice. The Hub's limitation is bizarre and maddening.
Another example: This phone gets traffic reports. That's great, too. The idea is that you put the phone in your family's hub room (usually the kitchen), so that before you head out the door to get in your car to go to work each day, you just punch up the traffic to see which commute route you should take. But although the Hub has a nice big color screen, it does not show you a useful traffic flow map like the one you can get from Google Maps. Rather, it plays you a video/voice recording of the traffic report (so you have to pay attention to make sure you don't miss your route). And it does so after playing you an ad. Listen, Verizon: I don't have time for your ads. And aren't I already paying you $35 a month for this product anyway?
The Hub does let you buy movie tickets, and it displays Verizon's VCast videos. These are cool features. Too bad the 7-inch screen on this broadband-connected quasi-computer doesn't also let you surf the Web.
Verizon is the wrong company to look at if you want to see the future of the home phone. If you really want to get what Verizon is trying, and failing, to offer in your kitchen, get a cheap used laptop, or a netbook, and set it up on your countertop. It will do more than the Hub and give you handy control of your Google Voice account. That's a great way to breathe new life into your home phone.
By Rafe Needleman