Thoughts for Vonage… Or ATT

It’s clear to me that Vonage is in deep now since ATT CallVantage has really been pushing their service out on a very mass, very aggressive level. As I evaluated VOIP services I considered both but felt I should go with Vonage since I had read so many favorable things about the service and how many bloggers and tech leaders had been digging it.

It struck me today how of course I felt that way based on my media consumption — primarily aggregated feed reading of blogs and news services. The ATT people have skipped that early-adopter market since they’ve already been reached instead going straight to the meaty part of the curve, suggesting a revolution in phone service for consumers. If you watch the commercials, you’ll see that they are bright and upbeat and focus on cool features that enhance and benefit life. That might be a stretch, it is after-all just phone service but they really are aspirational… the employees featured are Inventors, which seems cool. Their marketing and site is much more consumer facing that that of Vonage which feels techie.

Vonage and others (I have no experience or interest sorry in Packet8) fall into an easy trap in marketing their service… They focus on the fact that it’s a tech product. Sure you hook it up to your router and it uses your broadband connection, but that should be secondary to what can be done with the service. I just did a quick comparison with ATT and realized that while it may cost $5 more per month, it’s actually a more feature rich service and in thinking about it, I want those things… or I’d like to see Vonage counter with some additional options.

Let’s break down some of the cool benefits which clearly need to be communicated sooner rather than later since it’s already starting to get pretty noisy out there.

  • Price — It’s such a clear and simple one, but it will also not matter soon enough since it seems everyone will be pretty close to the same. Vonage is $29.99 and ATT is $34.99 (not including their current offer of $19.99/mo for 6 months) for similar service. Vonage does offer lower monthly rates with minute based packages, but let’s focus on the unlimited ones which most parallel the current crazily overpriced stuff we are getting from Verizon and others.
  • Call Forwarding — When I first realized what it was exactly with the Vonage service I was amazed! I can have my phone ring at the same time as another line, or have it ring the second line after a certain amount of time. This is great in my home office for when I need to step out or when travelling…Calls automatically reach me on my mobile. One number and it’s easy to have calls reach me. Tonight I realized that ATT kills this with the addition of 4 more lines for a total or 5 lines. They call it Locate Me and shoot down Call Forwarding with it since it’s much more robust. If I was Vonage, I’d be looking to add more lines to the Call Forward service to be operating on the same level.
  • Voicemail — Yes they both have it (of course) and both offer email notifications which is a slick service and you can get the voicemail as an email attachment if you like to listen right on your computer. ATT understands this more as a customer benefit though and pushes the fact that you can pass the Voicemail as an email to your friends and family. There is no magic here except for the packaging.
  • Do Not Disturb — Only ATT has it and it’s totally cool. With a baby at home, we turn the ringer off in the room she sleeps. We could manage this though with a few clicks instead and keep the ringer on for other times.
  • Softphone — Only Vonage has it and I think they should be giving it away rather than charging $9.99/ mo for 500 minutes. This is a very slick advantage (for now) that could really be pushed for those traveling who want to use their computers to receive and make calls. I would use this for sure if I did not have to pay so much extra each month. Since the forwarding feature is already simultaneously capable of ringing a second line and in my world it would do more, why not push the softphone as a way to handle calls. I don’t really want a second number for my computer, I just want the ability to be reached and I like the idea of using the laptop. There are plenty of times when cellular is limited in hotels or it’s too expensive when abroad and the computer would be a terrific way to handle this. (I know international calling rates are different, but I also know people who take their ATA box around with them and make calls as if locally from where ever.)
  • Personal Conferencing — Only ATT has it and it’s definitely missing from Vonage. The ads make it seem extremely powerful using 10 lines in the example. It’s 3-Way calling plus, but Vonage does not yet even offer this basic land-line level of conferencing.

That’s pretty much it for the current major features. Vonage does offer additional virtual lines and toll-free service which can all ring on the same original line you subscribed with.

Even though Vonage established the market here, they are clearly in serious risk of being forced into being a marginal player based on ATT’s fast product development and superior marketing clout – both in dollars and in presence. I can’t speak with any technical understanding, but on the surface the products are essentially the same. It’s only a matter of time for the hardware to be compatible (as I am sure it is now actually but not allowed easily for quality of service issues I presume) across service and people will be able to switch just as easily as they did back in the Phone Wars of the 80s and 90s. ATT is pretty comfortable in this space since that is how they were birthed… Vonage could be left standing as another tech company that innovated, but could not get out of their own way.

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