Value Key for Voice WiFi Adoption

While everything at VON is, of course, billed as breakthrough, disruptive, playing field-changing technology, one of the most potentially disruptive new developments made its debut before the show, on Monday at San Jose-based HelloSoft’s open house.

When Alexander Graham Bell uttered those fateful words, “Mr. Watson, come here I want you” I’m sure that no one was reporting about the voice quality.

So when I experienced a seamless WiFi-cellular call handoff yesterday, I wasn’t focused on the details so much as the fact that this was actually working. With people calling seamless handoff the “holy grail” of convergence, well, I was excited to see it work.

I’m pleased to report that unlike much new technology, it didn’t just work the first time. It pretty much…worked.

While the handoff was audible, sound quality was acceptable. The phone has a single phone number — HelloSoft’s other dual mode phones have separate numbers for the WiFi and cellular networks. The handset shows network strength for both networks as well as highlighting what network is currently carrying the call.

While seamless handoff isn’t going to change the world as profoundly as Bell’s invention, it has the potential to change mobile telephony pretty significantly.

Of course, some question if voice WiFi — even in its dual-mode incarnation — the tree to be barking up? Especially as at least one carrier recently dropped its dual mode phone.

There’s plenty of opportunity, says Ron Victor, HelloSoft GM, Marketing and Business Development, although he does say that the technology-focused business model for WiFi phones has been flawed from the get-go.

“People don’t care what infrastructure you’re on,” he explains. “They want good voice quality at a very low price. When was the last time you said, ’Is my call going through an HSDPA network?’ The assumption that people are going to jump to WiFi was fundamentally wrong. What’s the value proposition?”

The Skype-only handset illustrates a business model that does make sense, Victor says. “Why do people use Skype? Because it’s free. The Skype handset is more convenient, more flexible, more grandma-centric. You have a value proposition.”

“In voice over WiFi, the only way you’re going to entice me to use it, is that you’re going to slash my phone bill,” he continues. “But if you drop it to $25 a month, well Vonage has done that already. But if you tell me you’re going to drop my phone bill to $5 a month, then you’ve got my interest.”

One of the value propositions Victor sees for a dual mode phone is the potential to save businesses sacks of money on corporate cell phone bills. “Companies are already paying for cell phones for their employees,” he explains. “There are huge savings if you can move mobile phone calls to the enterprise network. Industrial applications — that’s where voice over WiFi is going to happen.”

Or as someone else I encountered at VON, Jeff White of Cognio put it, “The killer app for wireless is VoIP. The killer app for VoIP is wireless.”

HelloSoft is showing its line of dual mode phones at VON. The company is also running shuttle buses to its open house down the road where visitors can try out the seamless handoff for themselves.