Sony has announced a free Internet-based phone service similar to the popular computer-to-computer calling provided by Skype, but with an emphasis on video conferencing.

Called IVE for ”Instant Video Everywhere,” the service relies on Windows-based software that can be downloaded from the Internet. It will also ship with Sony’s new line of Vaio BX laptops, which feature built-in video cameras.

Like Skype, IVE also will feature a premium service that lets users dial traditional wireline phones and cell phones from their computers. The monthly fee of US$9.95 for the premium service includes a 10-digit phone number so IVE users can receive calls from regular and mobile phones.

The service, created in collaboration with GlowPoint Inc., marks the latest attempt at delivering a ”picture phone” for the consumer market.

The concept, first introduced by AT&T Corp. at the 1964 World’s Fair and unsuccessfully marketed in the seventies, reappeared during the dot-com era as high-speed Internet connections made live video connections accessible to a wide audience.

While Internet portals such as Yahoo and AOL have long offered a video option with their instant-messaging services, few users have availed themselves. More recently, Skype Technologies  has been promising to introduce a video version of its hugely popular voice service by the end of 2005. In fact, in a separate announcement Wednesday, a company named Yak Communications also launched a free Internet calling service that incorporates video.

Sony’s alliance with Glowpoint expands on an Internet video-conferencing service for business that the companies launched in June to complement Sony’s equipment. This doesn’t mean that Sony Electronics wants to be a telephone company. ”We are a manufacturing company that sells hardware … we’re not going to become a voice telephony provider,” said Eric Murphy, vice president of video conferencing at Sony Electronics.

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