6 Skype Alternatives Offer New Services

In an effort to compete with the market leader, VoIP services such as GrandCentral and TalkPlus have come up with some interesting and useful features that may inspire you to

July 3, 2007

14 Min Read
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The first generation of VoIP services -- Vonage, Skype and others -- used computer and Internet technologies to make voice communications cheaper (and often free). Now a second generation of services is integrating VoIP with mobile and POTS handsets and services as they try to find ways to compete with their more established big brothers.

6 SkypeAlternatives

•  GrandCentral•  TalkPlus•  Jajah•  Talkster

•  Jangl•  Jaxtr

Some of these services offer a complex mix of features while others are one-trick ponies. Some charge for their services while others are free (or, at least, free while they experiment with product and market demand). They all push the envelope of what you can do with various combinations of voice calling, text messaging, e-mail, and the Web -- and they create an opportunity for you to do some nifty new tricks with your telephones, voicemail, and text messaging at little or no cost.

In this round-up, I look at three categories of services that are now being offered by some of these new companies. They include:

  • Numbers that ring where you are. Telephones have always tied together service and location: You got local rates and could receive calls when you were at home, but not when you were traveling. Services like GrandCentral and TalkPlus break that link, relaying calls made to local numbers across the country or around the world to whatever phone you want.

  • Free calls . . . to the right people. Several new services are trying to win customers with free calling -- even for international calls. Jajah, for example, lets you call other Jajah users free in seven countries (and hopes you'll find the service, which lets you make VoIP calls on your regular phone without special hardware, so convenient you'll spend enough on other calls to make them money). Talkster will connect your Web-enabled mobile phone to users of some voice-enabled IM services for free, and once you're in the door, hopes you'll use their service for its low rates and convenience -- it lets you get around some mobile plans' limitations on international calls and call almost anywhere in the world at low prices per minute.

  • Anonymous calling for social networkers. Jangl and Jaxtr are adding value to VoIP by connecting callers without revealing personal information like phone numbers. Jangl uses e-mail addresses to connect voice callers, and Jaxtr focuses on widgets you can put on your Web page that let people reach you without giving up your privacy.

The question is: Do the extra features that these services offer make them true competition for the market leaders? Let's find out.

Numbers That Ring Where You Are

GrandCentral (which just became the latest product to join the growing list of Google acquisitions) takes a very simple idea -- one phone number that follows you around through time and space -- and then elaborates on it.

When you sign up for GrandCentral (it's currently free) you enter your real phone number or numbers (landline and/or mobile). GrandCentral then assigns you its own number, giving you the choice of numbers from almost anyplace in the United States. (Some area codes and exchanges aren't available -- Manhattan numbers, for example, are all in the 646 overlay area code, not the more prestigious 212).

Once you pick one, it's yours "forever" says GrandCentral -- or at least as long as the company is in business. When callers ring your GrandCentral number, GrandCentral in turn rings all the phone numbers you've entered in your profile -- up to six numbers (or Gizmo Project addresses). You can set GrandCentral to ring your office phone, your home phone, and your cell phone; whichever you pick up is connected to the call.

(A note for privacy fans: Like many of the other services covered in this article GrandCentral lets you embed a click-to-call button on a Web page that people who want to call you can click to be connected without ever learning your GrandCentral number.)The greatest advantage of GrandCentral is that you can give people a phone number that will follow you around, no matter how many times your other numbers change. Other features of the service help you minimize the disadvantages that come along with that advantage, for example, by filtering calls and blocking callers, and applying a "spam filter" for known telemarketers.

Although GrandCentral adds another layer of digital manipulation to your phone calls, I didn't notice any problem in quality. The major negative impact is the added few seconds GrandCentral takes to filter and connect a call. But this minor nit fades into insignificance when set beside the fact that a GrandCentral number means you'll never miss a call.

TalkPlus works a variation on GrandCentral. Rather than one number that will ring several phones, TalkPlus will sell you many numbers that all ring on one phone.

The company packages up this idea in different ways. Its TalkPlus Country Connect service sells local phone numbers in some 32 countries that ring on whatever phone you specify. A local number in the Czech Republic, for example, would cost $9 a month plus 2.7 cents a minute for all calls it relays to you (and there's a $9 one-time setup charge, but check the site for specials). TalkPlus Mobile does essentially the same with a U.S. local number ($6 a month plus 2.7 cents per minutes for all domestic calls), but it's presented as a way to add a second line to your mobile phone.

On a Country Connect line you can't do much more than screen calls and review voicemails, but the TalkPlus Mobile lines come with a much richer set of features. You can configure the Caller ID for your TalkPlus number to display as your home or office number. You can set rules to control how callers are handled -- on a caller-by-caller basis, you can accept calls or send them to voicemail, to another phone number, or to a busy signal. Conference calling can handle up to 10 participants.

In addition to these essentially inbound services, TalkPlus offers outbound international calling services. With a TalkPlus Global plan you can call a landline in France for 1.1 cents a minute, or a mobile phone for 10.56 cents. (At the other end of the scale, a call to Wallis and Futuna -- that's an island territory in the South Pacific between Fiji and Samoa -- will run you 68.02 cents a minute.) TalkPlus Global Caller delivers the same international calling features and rates to Web-enabled mobile phones.

TalkPlus is primarily about low-cost voice calls, rather than features like call filtering and posting voicemails to your blog. Its rates seem very good, and it's offering a two-week free trial of its TalkPlus Mobile service that gives a second number for your mobile phone.

Free Calls . . . To The Right People


Jajah describes itself as "Skype without the headset." It's a VoIP phone service, but you don't need any special equipment to use it -- it completes its calls on standard telephones, either landline or mobile.

To make a Jajah call you go to www.jajah.com and enter two numbers: the phone you're calling from, and the phone you're calling to. Your phone will ring, and you'll be connected to your call. Jajah is a European-based service, and it accepts Visa, Mastercard, American Express, JBC and Diners Club. You can put in as little as $5 to start.

There is an incentive for you to get people you call regularly to sign up for Jajah, as well -- Jajah connects registered users for free. There are some restrictions -- calls to or from mobile phones are free in some countries and charged in others, for example, and no free service is available in some parts of the world. Call quality can be variable -- I experienced some strange clipping effects in some trial calls.

Rates for calling unregistered numbers are similar to other VoIP services: for domestic numbers in the United States it's 2.8 cents a minute; overseas rates go higher. And the difference between landline and mobile is significant, too -- a call from the United States to France, for example, costs 3.1 cents a minute if the connected phone is a landline, 17.6 cents if it's a cell phone. (That call to Wallis and Futuna is 82.5 cents a minute on Jajah.)Jajah is developing features that take advantage of the computing power behind VoIP calling. The service offers conference calling, scheduled calling that works for both personal reminders and conference calls, and SMS from your PC to mobile phones. It is currently beta-testing "dynamic buttons," similar to GrandCentral's click-to-call feature that lets visitors to your Web site phone or text you without revealing any of your personal data.

Jajah looks like it has legs, if its investors are any indication. Earlier this year it raised $20 million from the likes of Intel and T-Mobile. As mobile phone companies stop resisting the inevitability of WiFi access and VoIP over their services, Jajah looks well positioned to become a business partner of the big providers.

Talkster works like Jajah for phone-to-phone calls, but with a slightly different marketing twist -- instead of free calls between registered users, its gimmick is free calls to voice-enabled instant-messaging services. So you can set up a call from your Web-enabled mobile phone to somebody on your buddy list on MSN or Google Talk (and Gizmo Project addresses, as well).

If you're a regular user of IM-based voice services from your PC, Talkster extends your access to buddy lists to your mobile phone. And if you're calling phone numbers in other countries, Talkster allows you to avoid any restrictions on international calling that your cell phone account might impose.

Talkster pushes the VoIP envelope in the direction of presence, the ability to see whether the person you want to communicate with is online, and how. Once you've set up your voice IM contacts in Talkster, you can see your buddies' presence information from your mobile phone's browser. (Talkster does this without installing any software on your phone, either.)

Talkster's rates for calls connected to the public telephone network are similar to Jajah's -- that call to France will cost you 2 cents a minute if you're connecting to a landline phone, 23 cents if it's a mobile. (The ever-popular Wallis and Futuna: 81 cents a minute.) Talkster accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover through InternetSecure.

Talkster's technology has an immediate benefit -- it lets you pick the least expensive way to reach your contacts -- and it's got long-term potential as well, because voice communications are moving away from reliance on the 10-digit telephone number and over to Web 2.0 addressing schemes, such as IM handles that can be resolved to IP addresses. Talkster is positioning itself for the future.

Anonymous Calling For Social Networkers

Jangl, like Jajah, connects a call by ringing both end-points. Unlike Jajah, though, Jangl doesn't depend on you knowing the number you want to call.

Instead, you enter your party's e-mail address. Jangl assigns a temporary phone number, which you call from your registered phone number. If the e-mail address belongs to another registered Jangl user, you'll be connected. If it doesn't, you'll leave a voicemail asking for a callback to another temporary number. When the person calls, Jangl will connect you.

Two good things about this:

  1. You can be called by people who don't know your phone number -- even people you don't want to know your phone number. Jangl's temporary numbers are semi-permanent -- your callers can put them into their contacts list and use them over and over, but if you decide you don't want to hear from them any more, you can block the number or delete the contact entirely.

  2. Jangl is priced right while it's in beta -- it's free, even for international calls. So, just as with Jajah, as long as you and the person you call are both registered Jangl users, the service costs nothing. (Free calling is limited to 32 countries, though -- you're going to have to keep paying to talk to your buddies in Wallis and Futuna). Jangl's temporary callback numbers are all local as well, so that won't cost you anything.

Jangl offers many of the same features as other second-generation VoIP services. You can screen first-time callers by listening to the caller's voice introduction, then accepting or rejecting the call. (Repeat callers who use the Jangl callback number show up in Caller ID.) Jangl provides voicemail for callers, and can send you e-mail or SMS notifications which include phone numbers and URLs, so you can listen to your messages either on your phone or your computer.

The service is pushing "CallMe Links," its version of click-to-call. It's the easiest one of the bunch to use: You don't need to include any special code or phone numbers -- just put a link on your site or in your email signature to "http://callme.jangl.com/[email protected]" (with your e-mail address replacing "[email protected]," of course). You can use it even if you don't have a Jangl account -- everybody has to eventually register in order to connect a call, but the sign-up is easy.

Jangl is a little bit more cumbersome than other services because reconciling e-mail addresses adds a step or two to the process, but it's painless, and it works. You can keep your phone number private, and -- at least as long as Jangl is free -- you're not leaving yourself open to anything beyond your normal phone charges.

Jaxtr is more or less Jangl plus eye candy minus the e-mail address feature that permits unregistered users to make calls. It's clearly aimed at the social-networking market, and has a feature set that's intended for users with short attention spans.

Jaxter delivers the flashiest icons to your MySpace page or blog (you can add your photo to your Jaxtr icon). Like Jajah and Jangle, Jaxtr rings both phones to connect a call.

You can add up to three phones to your Jaxtr account and select which one receives calls -- or send all calls to voicemail. You can set rules on contacts to accept calls, send them to voicemail, or block them entirely. Like Jangl, Jaxtr makes persistent links between the number you're calling from and the number you're calling to, so once you get a Jaxtr number for your party you can save it in your contacts and use it to call directly or text to.

This also means that you've got a no-cost route to your party's phone, because at least for the time being, Jaxtr is free, even for international calls (currently Jaxtr connects calls to 44 countries " the service just added India, Hong Kong, China, South Africa, Jamaica, and Russia). Your total minutes of talk time per month are limited, but text messaging is unlimited, though you have to do it from your phone " the Jaxtr Web site doesn't give you the capability to text your contacts from a browser.)Jaxtr doesn't offer the features of other services -- no conference calling, for example -- and its Web site is as much about attitude as it is about ease if use, but its no-headset calling, good list of international calling countries, and its current price of $0 make it attractive, especially if you want to text someone overseas.

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