I should have known it. I had my suspicions. but I decided to check it out anyway, but I’m getting ahead of myself as usual.
Perhaps you’ve heard: AOL is joining the Internet phone service game with its own variation on the theme.
You see, AOL is hemorrhaging members even as we speak, with millions ditching the world’s largest ISP every year. Internet telephony is catching on, so the bigwigs at Time Warner figured it was time to combine the two. The end result, after a beta test period, is being unveiled in 40 cities.
Now anyone with a broadband connection, regardless of computing platform can sign up for Vonage, the largest Internet VoIP provider, AT&T CallVantage, and pretty much all the rest. But AOL is marching to the beat of a different drummer. First off, it comes with an AOL membership for non-members, and thus costs more than the rest; there’s no way to unbundled the service. After some initial promotional deals, the rate rises to $39.99 per month for unlimited calls to the U.S. and Canada. Existing AOL members will pay $29.99 per month.
The neat thing about the service, assuming an AOL account is important to you, is the virtually seamless integration between call waiting, caller ID, voice mail, AOL email and instant messaging. There’s also a voice feature that lets you receive your mail on your phone, read back to you by an electronic or robotic voice.
Early reviews sound promising. And one of the supported cities is the Phoenix area, but I won’t be testing the service, at least for now. Why? Because a Mac version isn’t available. Yes, once again, Windows users have the advantage. But that’s not a permanent situation. According to AOL spokesperson CIndy Harvey, Mac support is due “later this year.”
Now before we get carried away here, bear in mind that Vonage, the number one VoIP service, charges $24.99 for its unlimited service and you aren’t locked in to any specific ISP, so long as it’s broadband. In addition, you can set up virtual numbers in various cities, where your number is a local call, regardless of where you’re really located. It’s great for businesses and making sure that family member on a budget can stay in touch. You can also get virtual numbers in Canada, Mexico and the UK, all for the same price, which is $4.99 per month. A toll-free number service is also available.
Before we get carried away, some of Vonage’s competitors are even cheaper, although Vonage gets top marks for service. My personal experience with the company grows better all the time, and right now, it’s hard to detect a difference when compared to a traditional land line. After a few growing pains, Vonage is basically transparent, which is the way a good telecommunications service should be.
But the competition will be fierce. Some of the largest cable TV services are now rolling out their VoIP alternatives, and even the local Bells are jumping into the fray.
Where will this leave AOL? Well, its VoIP alternative sounds like a neat idea, and I hope it spreads to the Mac platform by the time the service reaches all the nooks and crannies of the country. If not, the Mac users on AOL who have long felt slighted in paying the same monthly payment for less might decide to just take a walk. It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that AOL actually originated on the Mac, and once had the best Mac support message boards on the planet. No, it’s not because I was a part of it. At a time when all the other online services were mostly text-based, except for some clunky graphical based software for the original CompuServe, AOL had a better idea and eventually came to own the Internet, at least as far as membership was concerned.
Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised that Mac users are getting short shrift. After all, AOL’s widely advertised budget ISP, Netscape, is also a Windows-only product, though I’m pressing for information as to whether that’s going to change in our lifetime.
In the end , I thought that the Mac’s newfound success would be sufficient to persuade more and more companies that we are to be ignored at their peril. Let’s hope AOL gets the message before there’s no turning back. Or maybe it just doesn’t care, but I ‘d rather believe it simply made a strategic mistake.
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