The wet noodle approach
Almost every telecom is offering some blend of PSTN and VoIP service. You can now choose from an unbelievable number of services, including several from Big Bells. Vonage seems the most likely home-service winner, but PC-to-PC software provider Skype has launched SkypeOut, which lets you call from your PC to regular phones, and is beta-testing SkypeIn, which gives you a phone number that anyone can call, using any phone, and which you can answer anywhere you carry your computer.
It's as though companies are just hurling VoIP solutions against the wall like spaghetti noodles, hoping to get one that sticks and makes them a ton of money. The ideas are getting pretty out there, too. Last year, for example, a couple of companies started working to integrate VoIP into private jet avionics systems. A company called Ezmax produces a flash MP3 player that lets you use it as a microphone with built-in dialer software for making VoIP calls when the player is plugged into your PC. (Seriously, what? Seriously.)
All together now
In sum, what we have here are about a million different ways to call or be called using Internet delivery, and most of them are on proprietary services that don't talk to each other. People keep adding VoIP services to their products in the hopes that the Internet will just facilitate all this wonderful calling and communication, but it doesn't make things easier--it makes them harder. Let's say I want to play Xbox with my friends, but they're not online. I could SMS them. I could e-mail them. Or I could just call them--on their home numbers, work numbers, cell phone numbers, or SkypeIn numbers, or some combination of all of them. But when can I have one, unified, universal form of communication? We've achieved this with e-mail--you can send e-mail to anyone you want, anytime. But imagine if you had to know where someone was going to be in order to e-mail them. That's how it is with our varied modes of voice communication.
In my personal technology wish list, I get one phone number from one company. Maybe I get one handset to carry with me everywhere, but better yet, I get the modern-day equivalent of something like a SIM card. Multiple companies make hardware and software that's compatible with my card and my personal phone number identity, because they're working off of agreed-upon standards for telecommunication that facilitate interoperability without building monopolies. But on my end, I only know that I can pop my little card into a hotel phone, an Xbox, a cell phone, my home phone, a pay phone, or my computer, and some back-end monster goes, "OK, that's where Molly is now."
And on the other end, everyone who needs to reach me has this one number, and this number alone. Maybe along with my card, I get a mobile phone with a static IP address (yes, I know I'm wandering into IPv6 territory, but I said it was a wish list), and it's Wi-Fi or, ideally, WiMax enabled, so I can receive content on it no matter where I am--whether it's e-mail, news alerts, movie showtimes, or video clips. I either use my VoIP service or cellular service to make all the calls I need, taking advantage of the cheap or free calling that is VoIP's greatest selling point. And of course, the e911 stuff is all worked out, partly by the calling cards (are they GPS equipped? I'll leave these details to the inventors) that can pinpoint my location at all times. Suddenly, VoIP is more than a fad feature, and telecom is more than a collection of companies with untapped potential. Shouldn't the best technology work like the plain old telephone service? You just pick up and dial.