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The only reason to pay NIS 400 for the SkypePhone is a psychological one. After nearly two years during which Skype presented itself as the preferred VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) software for free international calls between computer users, the company is moving on to Stage 2, in an attempt to gain control of a significant share of the international telephone call market - not only those calls made between computer users, but also those made between owners of ordinary telephones.

Skype was always simple to use. The user downloaded and installed the software, chose a user name and built up a list of contacts, as with any instant messaging program. Afterward, he would plug headphones and microphone into the computer, click on the name of the party to be called, and the familiar telephone ring would be heard on the other end. At this point, the party receiving the call put on headphones, and the two parties were able to "talk among themselves."

What makes a Skype-facilitated phone call different is that the technology that underlies the software routes the voices of the two parties through the computers of other users linked to the service, in order to take advantage of their Internet resources and obtain optimal sound quality. The more than 30 million downloads made thus far from the Skype Web site prove that it works.

But Skype is not a non-profit organization. The SkypeOut service that it has offered for the past six months enables users of the software to place phone calls with ordinary telephones, and at much lower cost than between landline telephones. A minute-long call between Israel and the U.S., for instance, costs about seven agorot (NIS 0.07).

This is where the SkypePhone comes into the picture. To persuade the enormous potential audience that SkypeOut is not merely the caprice of a few technophiles with an understanding of the inner secrets of the universe, but actually a legitimate way to place transatlantic telephone calls, Skype decided to smarten itself up a bit. As company executives saw it, if clients were able to hold a telephone in hand (hooked up to the computer) instead of wearing a headset a la Madonna or a telemarketer, they would be less unnerved, and would be more likely to adopt the Skype service.

SkypePhone looks like an ordinary telephone, with a USB connection to the computer, and aside from the familiar feel of a telephone receiver, it enables the user to dial with the number keys instead of typing into the computer keyboard.

Aside from that, it is hard to think of any other advantages offered by the device, which sells for NIS 400. For the sake of comparison, a simple headset - of headphones and microphone - can be purchased for NIS 19. The main reason to buy the SkypePhone is psychological.

Th unreasonable cost of a SkypePhone might have been considered more acceptable if it worked flawlessly. The problem is that it is far from perfect. In sharp contrast to the promises of the importer (skypeshop.co.il), it had a hard time getting past my standard firewall, and was blocked by it.

If that weren't enough, every time it is plugged into the computer, it has to be redefined on the control panel to make sure that it is the device that handles the sounds that the computer inputs and outputs.

Unfortunately, the SkypePhone's definition as the computer's audio output device is too all-encompassing, and once it is defined as the audio outlet, it insists on playing every sound emitted by the computer through its ear-piece instead of through the speakers. Even its detachment from the USB port does not automatically restore the former settings of the computer's audio definitions.

Until the SkypePhone's price is significantly lowered and its operational glitches are rectified, Skype users are better off using the traditional "Madonna" headset. Yes, they may lose a little self-respect, but it will cost them less than NIS 20.