iPhones get Skype twist

New Internet-enabled handsets from Linksys allow users free voice calls using Skype's IP telephony service.

SINGAPORE--A new product called the iPhone is finally here, but it has nothing to do with either Apple Computer or its popular iPod media player.

There has been some speculation over the ownership of an "iPhone" product line, much of which had pointed to an assumption that Apple would lay claim to the namesake.

However, last week, wireless equipments maker Linksys revealed it has adopted the iPhone moniker to identify the company's upcoming range of voice-over-IP (VoIP) phones. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office indicates that there are four active trademark assignments for "iPhone" and its derivative terms--one of which is owned by Cisco Systems, Linksys' parent company.

The iPhone had been widely rumored to be the official designation of Apple's next mobile product--a hybrid device that combines cellular technology with iPod functionality. Although Apple has been cool in downplaying the existence of such a product, industry observers are expecting the device to appear sometime next year.

In comparison, the iPhones announced by Linksys last week are Internet-enabled handsets that allow users to make free or inexpensive voice calls using popular VoIP applications such as Skype. The product line-up consists of seven models, including two Skype-compatible models that will only be shipped early next year.

According to the company's press release, the upcoming Skype iPhones CIT400 and WIP330 are targeted at home, small office/home office (Soho) and small-business users. Both phones allow voice calls as well as real-time access to a user's Skype contact list, and support extended Skype-based caller services such as SkypeOut, SkypeIn and Skype Voicemail.

Priced at US$179 (S$275), the iPhone Dual-Mode Internet Telephony Kit for Skype--CIT400--embeds the popular communications client into a cordless phone base station that attaches directly to a home network via Ethernet, making it possible to place calls without turning on a computer. The US$369 (S$568) iPhone Wireless-G Phone for Skype--WIP320--meanwhile, turns Skype portable by integrating the service into a Wi-Fi-enabled handset, allowing users to initiate calls from anywhere via an 802.11b/g wireless network.

Mike Pocock, Linksys senior vice president and general manager, said in a statement: "As the next generation of handheld devices, Linksys iPhone voice solutions and products are changing the way people communicate with their friends, family and colleagues.

"The development of the iPhone family demonstrates our flexibility in selecting the right partnerships, feature sets and product designs to exceed the demands of even our most connected customers to whom the Internet is no longer a destination, but an inextricable part of their lives," he added.

Linksys' iPhones add competition to the steadily-growing Skype handset market. Earlier this month, rival networking products maker Netgear launched its own Wi-Fi phone which lets users chat for free over a wireless network using Skype's popular VoIP service.

According to a recent Infonetics Research report, the Wi-Fi phone market increased 116 percent between 2004 and 2005 to US$125.5 million. The market is expected to more than double in 2006 as enterprises and consumers deploy local area networks that support voice over wireless service.