Dean Harris, Vonage

Gearing up for his recent move to a new home in south Florida, David Pietrowksi knew he would be making a lot of long-distance calls to family back home in the Midwest. Surfing the Web one day, the 31-year-old sales executive saw an ad for Vonage at Yahoo.com and signed up for its discounted offer of $15 per month VOIP service, complete with a free adapter.

Why not, he figured? Monthly local calls alone would have run him around $30 with a company like Southwestern Bell. “It was a no-brainer,” he said.

Pietrowksi bought wireless headsets to go with the service, which allows him to forward calls to his cell phone and send voicemail to his e-mail account, and added a business line for an extra $40 monthly fee. “My wife can talk on one line and I can do business on another,” he said. “It’s color-coded. Anyone could set it up.”

Perhaps, but Pietrowksi’s early-adopter status (which he’s confirmed by jumping on the satellite radio bandwagon and purchasing the latest Xbox PlayStation2 the day it was released) means that he is not just “anyone.” For Vonage to reach critical mass with its Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) service, it must continue to convince not only tech-savvy consumers like Pietrowski to dump their phone lines, but also a fair number of people who are still dialing up to the Internet, if not asking their kids to program the VCR.

“We are beyond early adopters now; we’re in the early majority stage,” said Dean Harris, 55, chief brand officer at Vonage. “You can’t have our numbers and have them be only early adopters.”

Others may debate that point. In the meantime, Vonage has been so successful in pioneering the early growth of the category known as Internet telephony, Harris has more pressing matters on his hands. His Edison, N.J., company is now facing an uncertain future, one that includes fierce competition and the possibility of a public offering or buyout.

How Vonage got to that stage, of course, is the reason Harris has been selected as one of our Marketers of the Year. Through a combination of its strong value proposition and eccentric message–complete with a missive to warn consumers against doing “stupid” things–Vonage has established the definitive VOIP brand. It currently leads the category with one million subscribers (a third of the U.S. market), up from 300,000 last November. Time Warner is second with about 600,000 subscribers, followed by Cablevision with 250,000.

Many analysts predict that the market for VOIP in the U.S. is set to explode, which explains why both cable companies and Internet giants like eBay, Google and Microsoft have jumped into the fray. Research firm IDC, Framingham, Mass., forecasts the total number of U.S. residential VOIP subscribers to grow to 97 million by 2009, up from three million in 2005. More than half of households that subscribe to the service have disconnected or replaced their landline phones, per research group Telephia, San Francisco.

Perhaps most noteworthy is eBay’s $2.6 billion-plus purchase of Skype, the Luxembourg-based company whose free peer-to-peer Internet phone service has 54 million users worldwide. (Skype users talk via computers with a headset or a mike, whereas Vonage and other like-minded providers require a broadband feed to talk through cyberspace using a regular telephone.)

Reports are mixed on how eBay’s purchase of Skype changes things for Vonage, though an acquisition of such magnitude surely legitimizes a new product category. Some argue that eBay may use Skype simply to enhance its auction process, thereby lessening Vonage’s concern. But eBay users might be introduced to Skype during a buyer-seller transaction and then continue to use the technology because its peer-to-peer communication works so well. Others say new “SkypeBay” or “Skype-Pal” options may take a cut of each call that takes place when a consumer “skypes” a commercial business.