Voice-over-IP powers online love connections

Online dating site eHarmony is using new technology to bring the telephone back to matchmaking, says Fortune's Stephanie N. Mehta.

By Stephanie N. Mehta, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Finding love in the 21st century - a pursuit these days that involves meeting up via online dating sites and furtive text messages - has come full circle. Thanks to a new service from Internet dating purveyor eHarmony, modern would-be lovers soon could find themselves waiting by the phone once again.

Pasedena-based eHarmony is expected today to announce a new service that lets its members connect via phone - without actually giving out their home, work or cellular phone digits.

"Online services have brought a new way for people to meet, but the structure of how two people come together hasn't changed since the beginning of time," says Greg Waldorf, CEO of eHarmony. "People want to take gradual steps toward an ultimate relationship. The connection starts online, and it leads to a phone call."

Using voice-over-Internet Protocol, or VOIP, technology, eHarmony's service enables potential partners to speak on the phone without disclosing personal contact information. If one of the interested parties wants to initiate a call, he or she clicks on a special link on the eHarmony site, and eHarmony then sends an e-mail indicating the caller's interest to the intended call recipient. The eHarmony service, designed by VOIP provider Jajah, then initiates a call to the recipient's preferred phone number, only that data (as well as the phone number of the caller) is completely masked by the site.

It almost is as though Jajah and eHarmony have created an Internet-based "bridge" conference call for its users, but at a fraction of the cost. EHarmony says it will charge $5.95 per month for unlimited calls among its members.

EHarmony's Waldorf says he was drawn top the Jajah solution because the parties connect via their existing phones, not using computer-to-computer connections that were the hallmarks of the early days of VOIP. (And many young people use computer-to-computer calls through instant messenger services offered by the likes of Microsoft (Charts, Fortune 500), Yahoo (Charts, Fortune 500) and AOL, which, like CNN/Money, is a unit of Time Warner (Charts, Fortune 500).

Indeed, Waldorf is skeptical of predictions that some technologies will completely reinvent the online dating space: In particular, eHarmony isn't yet keen on the idea that mobile technology will "tag" members and inform them when they are within, say, 50 feet of a potential hookup. His customers, he says, (eHarmony is in the "serious relationship" business, he notes) want to spend time getting to know a person online - and now, on the phone - before meeting face-to-face.

For Jajah, the eHarmony service is the latest salvo in what its CEO Trevor Healy likes to call "Voice 2.0." If the first generation of VOIP was just cheap phone calls, the latest version of VOIP, like Web 2.0, is focused on collaboration and using the intelligence of the network to provide new kinds of services. "Why is this important?" Healy writes in an e-mail message. "It validates that the net is moving away from messaging to intelligent voice 2.0 applications."

It also helps validate Jajah's business model, which relies on customers continuing to use traditional telecom networks - such as landlines and mobile phones - to connect via VOIP. The company, which has main offices in Mountain View, Calif., and Luxembourg, recently announced a round of financing from the likes of German phone company Deutsche Telekom and Intel's venture capital arm.

To wit: the company just announced that Deutsche Telekom's T-Online Venture Fund has invested in Jajah, part of a $20 million financing round led by Intel Capital. Top of page