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Soft Spot

Software that turns your wi-fi connection into a "phone line"? You bet, and it could save you big bucks.

As more phone traffic travels over the Internet, more computers will be doubling as telephones. Any Internet-connected desktop, laptop, tablet or PDA with a mic and speakers can become a softphone by adding a small inbox/dialer client that links to an Internet-connected server elsewhere.

Why bother? Because calls traveling exclusively over the Internet cost the same whether the other party is across the street, across the country or around the world- and that cost is usually zip, zero, nada.

Another reason is that, technically, the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and even cellular networks don't actually route calls to you personally; they call a handset. IP phone systems do a much better job of tracking you down wherever you may roam-and these days, more of us spend more time out of the office than ever before.

There are lots of ways to add phone capability to a computer. None of them are free, but all are money savers. VoIP services like Dialpad Communications (www.dialpad.com), Net2Phone (www.net2phone.com) and Vonage (www.vonage.com) let you download their softphone inbox/dialers to your computer for free, as long as you use their discount VoIP services.

If you already have an IP server at the office, it probably has a mobile computer option, too. Avaya's IP Softphone extends all the rich telephony services of Avaya's (www.avaya.com) office phone system to any Windows-compatible portable for a one-time licensing fee of $130 per user. That includes a Pocket PC connected to the Internet over a Wi-Fi hot spot.

In fact, softphone-specific ventures like TeleSym (www.telesym.com) and Media-Streams USA (www.media-streamsusa.com) believe the growing archipelago of public and private Wi-Fi networks is going to provide a new era of last-mile IP phone connectivity for mobile workers. Like other inbox/dialers, TeleSym's SymPhone and Media-Streams USA's e-phone rely on full-featured servers back at the office, where all the necessary telephone-style switching and directory services are handled. After a one-time, per-user payment of about $200 to $250 or more (depending on the volume ordered) for SymPhone and $480 to $690 for e-phone (depending on how many licenses are purchased), staffers can make unlimited free Internet calls, probably saving that much in long distance in a couple of months.

They'll also get more calling and voice-mail flexibility. Softphone clients let you merge or share information with other inboxes-including Microsoft Outlook in the case of SymPhone and e-phone-capturing caller-ID information in phone books and making outgoing calls by clicking a contact entry. Voice-mail messages can be stored on your computer as .wav files and forwarded as e-mail attachments.

IP telephony will really get mobile this fall, says Mike Houston, senior product marketing manager for Bellevue, Washington-based TeleSym. By then, equipment and agreements should be in place to let calls travel between 802.11x and cellular networks as necessary.

Like this article? Get this issue right now on iPad, Nook or Kindle Fire.

This article was originally published in the March 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Soft Spot.

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