First Looks: AOL VoIP Service Keeps it Simple

Internet giant's CallWays service looks a lot like the company's well-worn content site: Easy-to-use, attractive at first glance, but over-burdened with ads and less-than-useful pop-ups. All-in-all, a worthy, albeit expensive, first stab.

AOL, the brand that made the internet seem safe and easy for millions of consumers, is now trying to secure the millions who will, one day soon, be using VoIP to integrate their telecommunications and online worlds.

The CallWays Internet Phone service from AOL, launched earlier this month, has two things going for it: It's easy to set up and it is loaded with powerful features to allow users flexibility and control over their telephone calls.

But it does come with its downsides: specifically, the incessant advertising, obsequious pop-ups that are hallmarks of the brand, and a look so similar to AOL's content product that it quickly grows monotonous.

Constantly running in windows on the desktop are a world of teases for AOL's news, shopping, and entertainment partners. Even in the CallWays main window, what the company calls the “Dashboard,” an eighth of the space is reserved for an advertisement. The ad is disabled in the evaluation version of the product we received, but the eyeballs of commercial subscribers will be right where AOL and their co-branding partners want them.

Getting up and running is a breeze: Register with the service, unbox the Linksys router/adapter that is shipped, plug in one Ethernet cable, one telephone, a power supply — and hear the dial tone. Truly, AOL has achieved the plug-and-play goal eluding much of the field in the present VoIP space.

AOL seems to recognize, as well, that phone call cost savings represent only part of the promise of VoIP. But at $29.99 per month for the service's unlimited local and long-distance US/Canada phone calling (set to rise to $39.99 after the introductory promotional period), CallWays is definitely not the VoIP cost leader.

Current AOL subscribers can choose from calling plans starting at $24.99 for unlimited local/US/Canada service, but it's debatable whether CallWays subscribers will save much over traditional PSTN phone service in the end.

Beyond the ease of setting up the hardware, the CallWays interface does incorporate premium calling features of PSTN phone service, like Call Waiting, Caller ID, Call Forwarding, and Call Conferencing, integrated with a user's Address Book and Voice Mail, to allow total control of one's being in the connected world.

Sounds great, right?

AOL must be credited for providing a solid Linksys router/adapter (the VoIP adaptor in the device is based on Sipura Technologies' industry standard ATA design), and for putting some thought into how people might want to integrate their online lives with their telephone.

But do you need, let alone want, to view a sofa advertisement every time you open your address book? Can the “friendly” bubble windows in carnival hues, and the “helpful” pop-up suggestions for tuning the client to your very own personality and lifestyle quickly grow tiresome?

It is, on the other hand, quite cool to sit at your computer and see detailed information about the call coming in on your telephone, and to be able to, at the click of a mouse or a few key taps, route that call to voicemail, email, trash, or your address book — let alone be able to answer the phone.

And it is very useful to be sitting at your computer and think: “I've got to call Auntie Em and wish her a Happy Birthday!”, and be able to click on your aunt's phone number in the address book and have her on the line in no time.

Clearly, AOL understands VoIP is ready for prime time, and the marketing behemoth has made a worthy foray into the possibilities of digitizing voice.

In the end, however, CallWays is likely to appeal mainly to individual consumers who already subscribe to AOL.

The service, while simple and elegant, is not particularly suited to the small office and enterprise customers who stand to gain the most from VoIP's innovations.

And, for less money, the market already has better choices.