Switched On: Verizon Hub is a handset homecoming

Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

After years of providing the devices on which we spoke, Verizon is finally providing the Hub. The Verizon Hub is not the first VoIP product to use that moniker -- with pay upfront for lifetime long distance startup Ooma having used the "hub" name for its primary home phone adapter -- but the telco's take on the screenphone represents a turning point in the evolution of consumer telecommunications.

For much of its existence, the cell phone had long played second-fiddle to the home phone as the wireless wonders implied expensive plans and inferior voice quality. Increasingly, though, consumers are finding connections to data services as critical as voice connections, and despite attempts that have ranged from the Cidco iPhone (yes, there was one years before iPhones by Cisco and Apple) and more recently the RSS-savvy GE InfoLink (now abandoned by Thomson's exit from the cordless handset business), the home phone has begun to lag far behind its portable cousin as an Internet resource.

Enter our nation's two largest telecom providers. Triple-play aspirant Verizon Wireless has joined rival AT&T in offering a touch-screen, Internet-savvy home phone system heavy on information delivery and communications functionality while working with up to four DECT expansion handsets. Unlike the questionably named Samsung HomeManager offered by AT&T, the screen on the Verizon Hub cannot be carried conveniently about the house like a tablet display. The Verizon Hub also uses IP for its voice and data communications whereas HomeManager uses broadband for data and a traditional circuit-switched connection for voice calls. Why would Verizon blithely bypass its own copper?

Consider that the device is actually being offered by Verizon Wireless, and will initially be sold exclusively in Verizon Wireless stores. While it can be used with any old broadband provider, one must be a Verizon Wireless customer to buy a Verizon Hub, which has very cell phone-like pricing -- $200 with a two-year commitment of $34.99, complete with a $35 activation fee and up to a $175 early termination fee. The latter seems somewhat egregious given that the market for IP screen phones is a far cry from the one for cellular phones, but one could easily find a less expensive VoIP provider. Be thankful that there's no apparent way to tack on roaming charges.

On a more positive note, while both the Verizon Hub and the AT&T HomeManager overlap heavily in commodity content displaying visual voicemail, and managing calendars (although both cry out for Exchange integration), the Verizon offering surpasses HomeManager in terms of integration with Verizon Wireless services, including integration with VCast entertainment content, its Chaperone dependent-tracking service, and its VZ Navigator. Locate a restaurant from its local listings, and it can be sent to a Verizon Wireless phone that will be ready to guide you there once you hop into your car.

Verizon also has yet to tap into the potential of integrating the Verizon Hub with its FiOS TV offering. One could, for example, perform a search on the device for a few movies that are on TV during the week and use it to schedule them for recording with the DVR, ready to be enjoyed on the weekend. The Hub's user interface may not be as rich as a laptop's, but it's better for managing information than a remote control.

As both AT&T and Verizon know, more consumers are cutting the cord and relying on their mobile phone as their primary communications device, but landlines, particularly VoIP landlines, are far from dead, and these devices provide a way to bring some of the benefits of touchscreens that have long served as the preferred means for many high-end smart homes down to a more affordable price. The portability of the HomeManager gives it the hardware advantage, although Verizon has an advantage in terms of display widgets and service integration. While both will appeal to a limited market, AT&T and Verizon hope the melding of content and communication we take for granted on mobile phones can make itself at home.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own