Hardware will never be free. It is substance, and substance comes only at a cost. Data, however–the 1s and 0s that make up the information that is the lifeblood of hardware–is a lot cheaper. There has always been free software, and the internet has made free software ubiquitous. I would bet everyone has at least one free program on their system, whether it is Adobe Reader, AOL Instant Messenger, or some useful tool like Launchy. Some are built to be vehicles for advertising. Some, like Launchy, were created by someone who wanted a simple tool, and then developed into something useful with a life of its own.
David Pogue, the New York Times columnist who wrote “Overseas Calls Made Cheap, If Not Easy,” (login required, or use BugMeNot) believes that phone calling is going the way of instant messenging. And by all appearances, it is. While traditional phones are quick and easy, they aren’t cheap any longer.
Pogue walks through a number of VOIP options. I love his idea for Vonage: take the Vonage VOIP box that goes between the phone jack and your phone, and haul it with you anywhere in the world. Yes, it’s $25/month, but (a) that is a lot cheaper than a land line, and (b) you can take your phone number with you anywhere there is an internet connection.
The other fantastic option is Skype, which allows you to talk for free with other Skype members. Calling out to the U.S. and Canada is only $30/year. Get your own phone number with voicemail for another $38/year. International calls are about $.02/minute, far cheaper than any traditional phone. Belkin and Netgear also offer Skype phones that can use any free wi-fi network to send and receive calls through Skype. It won’t work if you have to use a web-based login, but that’s still good functionality. I am thinking about getting one to take with me on my honeymoon to Europe in May. If I don’t, I will just bring my laptop and make do with the extra bulk.