Verizon's Hub: Reinventing the Home Phone

The wired phone business, aka "plain old telephone service," is dying, with millions of landlines being canceled each year. That "plain old" qualifier may be part of the reason. Not only is wired service redundant for many people who use mobile phones, but these days even low-end mobiles are far more versatile than anything you can get with landline service from Verizon Communications (VZ) or AT&T (T).

Now, Verizon Wireless, a joint venture of Verizon Communications and Britain's Vodafone Group (VOD), is poised to make inroads into the home with a device called the Hub. It's designed to replace your wired phone, swap information with your other Verizon cell phones in unique ways, and provide some limited Internet services as well. It's not a perfect product, but it's further indication of why the traditional phone business looks doomed.

The Hub ($200 after rebate, $35 a month for unlimited calling) is not some newfangled cell phone in a bigger box. At its core, it's a cordless phone that makes use of your existing broadband connection, which can be from any Internet service provider. As such, it makes phone calls and performs other feats over the Internet—similar to the "voice over IP" (VoIP) services offered by such upstart Internet carriers as Vonage (VG) and Skype.

The phone's base station features a seven-inch touchscreen that enables a variety of features, turning the Hub into an Internet message center that displays Web information, such as weather forecasts or movie showtimes. There's also Chaperone, a $10-a-month service designed to help parents keep track of their kids—something no landline could duplicate.

A Verizon Walled Garden

Unfortunately, the Hub can't make up its mind whether it is a full-fledged Internet terminal or a portal into a Verizon walled garden, and that ends up limiting its usefulness. The most glaring example: It has text and photo messaging, but they work only with other Verizon Wireless phones. For a device that's supposed to represent the future, this is a Neanderthal approach.

Other Verizon-centric features perform just as they should. With Chaperone, you touch an icon on the screen to call up a program that displays the location of any Chaperone-equipped Verizon phone on a map. The Hub also gives you limited access to the well-known VZ Navigator service. With this, you can look up an address using the Hub, then download a map and driving directions to a phone equipped with Navigator.

In some cases the features would be more useful if they took advantage of some standard Web tools. There's a calendar, but it doesn't synchronize with any of the popular Web-based calendar services—a bit surprising given that Verizon's own smartphones will do this. You can export contacts from Microsoft Outlook to the Hub, but there's no two-way sync with Outlook or anything else. The Hub includes a grab bag of other features: audio weather and traffic reports, V CAST video clips, Internet radio, and the ability to turn the Hub's screen into a digital picture frame.

As a phone, the Hub offers all the modern conveniences. It lists your voice-mail messages on the display so you can choose which ones to listen to, just as you can on an iPhone. And if you want, incoming calls will automatically switch to your cell phone—or any other phone—if they can't get through to the Hub because of a power failure or Internet outage.

The Hub is a welcome step forward for landlines, but it could be a lot better. Verizon Wireless has to understand the dominance of the Internet in both wired and wireless communications means openness. These days nobody is interested in staring at a garden wall.

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