Tuesday, September 25, 2007

PhoneGnome "Better Experience Factor": Part 2

Even the non-aficionado may dimly recall hearing about "advanced features" starting as far back as the early ‘90s — automated voice-based personal assistants, one-number service, “find me-follow me”, text-to-speech email, etc. Pick one for, say, $15-20 per month.

These services failed for what I call the Three-C's - they were Cumbersome, Complex, and too Costly.

VoIP services like PhoneGnome strive to overcome these problems, trying to find the right balance of useful capabilities without being too complex, while at the same time, keeping the price low enough for consumers. It is not easy. Consumers are tough to please, when it comes to telephony services. They want a lot for little money - and it better be easy to use. And they are quick to drop a service at the first hiccup or if it is too hard to use. Who knows if, in the long run, PhoneGnome, or anyone, will succeed in hitting this sweet spot on a grand scale. In my case, they do.

Internet Answering Machine

For $100, PhoneGnome gives me an answering machine that can (1) answer the phone, (2) play a greeting to a caller, (3) take a message, and (4) package it into an email and send it to me. That may not sound like that much. Is it worth $100? Maybe not to some. It is to me.

Here is what you get in your inbox if you sign up for the Premium Voicemail Service from PhoneGnome. I imagine the standard Voicemail email looks similar:

From: PhoneGnome [voicemail@televolution.net]
Sent: Sunday, September 23, 2007 6:25 PM
To: Joe Smith
Subject: New message 1 in mailbox 2075551212

Attachments: msg0000.wav

Joe Smith:

"SMITH SUE" <2075551212> left a 0:20 long message in your PhoneGnome mailbox at Thursday, March 23, 2006 at 06:27:06 PM.

Check your PhoneGnome Voicemail by dialing **123 on your PhoneGnome phone.

Standard PhoneGnome free voicemail will send a .WAV file attachment to any email address. Callers will only hear a default greeting if you use the free standard voice mail. If you sign up for the Premium voice mail service for $19.99 (gives you one full year) you can record your own greeting and also get sent both an email with .WAV file of the a caller's voice message (this is the same as the free voicemail service) and get an SMS/text email sent to another email address.

PhoneGnome voicemail means I can pick up my voicemails anywhere I can get my email, which is just about anywhere these days. It also means I have the recorded message as a .WAV file that I can send to someone else, or use on my PC, save it forever, etc.

What's nice about this is it's super simple. All I have to do is click 'Activate' to enable the feature. I can change the email address(es) and set the number of seconds before PhoneGnome picks up and that's all there is to it. Simple, but very useful. And something the telephone company won't give me.

When I get an SMS from PhoneGnome premium voicemail, I know who left me a voicemail, so I know whether I need to check it right away, and when it can wait. This is about convenience, improving the "experience", making my phone behave the way I want it to behave, and work with what I want it to work with.

Next up, getting these same features on your cell phone, using PhoneGnome voicemail on your cell phone.

Friday, September 21, 2007

PhoneGnome "Better Experience Factor": Part 1

I mentioned before, two scenarios for using PhoneGnome:

  1. Free calls to PhoneGnome buddies (like Skype free calling)

  2. Cheap calls to non-members (like SkypeOut)

The difference with PhoneGnome is that these Skype-like capabilities work with any standard phone using regular phone numbers instead of using a PC and nicknames.

The majority of PhoneGnome users probably became interested in the service based on one of these cost-saving related benefits - the "Cheap or free factor". But there is another benefit and it's the third PhoneGnome usage scenario: Better Experience

Generally we only think of VoIP in terms of how we can use it to make calls, for outbound calling. In this case, with the "Better Experience" factor, we're now talking about more than that. In particular, benefits that have nothing to do with making calls at all, cheap, free or otherwise. Nobody thinks of VoIP in this way today because all we've heard about are cheap calls, so we're trained to think about it that way.

But once you have a product like PhoneGnome, you realize the most significant and life changing benefits of VoIP may be elsewhere, and the cost savings become just another perk, icing on the "experience" cake.

This series of posts will expand on this "Experience Factor" and try to put into practical terms.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

PhoneGnome Cheap and Free Calling

Free Calls

If you are familiar with Skype, then you understand PhoneGnome free calling. Skype says: "It’s free to download and free to call other people on Skype." In this case, "free" means you don't pay Skype, or anybody else, to make calls. It's the same concept with PhoneGnome. It's free to call other people on PhoneGnome, as in, you don't pay. This is in contrast to Vonage "free" calls, mobile phone "free long distance", and so on, which one pays for every month on their phone bill.

The difference with PhoneGnome is that everything is done with real phone numbers. To call someone on Skype free, we call their Skype "handle" (or nickname). With many other VoIP services, we dial a special number to place a free VoIP call. With PhoneGnome, we call the person by dialing their real phone number and the call is automatically free if that person is a PhoneGnome user (whether that person has the "PhoneGnome box" hardware or not).

There are some special codes and ways to dial "handles" and nicknames that apply when we are using PhoneGnome to call people on some other systems, or to place a call to a SIP address, but this is only needed because of the situation of that other person and the VoIP or IM system they are on, not because of PhoneGnome. In other words, in cases where the other system does not give users real phone numbers, we may have to use a handle or special "**" dialcode prefix or similar, but that isn't PhoneGnome's fault -in fact, PhoneGnome is one of the few VoIP services that provides any means to call such services free.

Paid Calls

That covers free calls - we dial the person's regular phone number, and if they are on PhoneGnome too, the call is free. What if they are not on PhoneGnome? Here is the way it works.

  • Always Local: The call is 911, a local call, a 1-800 number etc. - it goes out via the locally attached landline

  • Domestic Long Distance or International: If we activated a VoIP calling plan through our My PhoneGnome setup, the call is placed using the VoIP service. If not, the call is simply placed as usual, via the locally attached phone line.

Remember, this "calling plan" issue only applies if the call cannot be sent free. PhoneGnome always first checks to see if a number is a free call (applies to international calls too), in which case any optional calling plan is irrelevant.

Let's pause and take a look at a few scenarios or applications for the PhoneGnome box, given the above:

  1. I just want to make free calls to PhoneGnome buddies (imagine Skype without SkypeOut).

  2. I'm more interested in saving money on calls to non-PhoneGnome members.

For Scenario #1 I don't need any plan for non-PhoneGnome numbers. I can get Skype-like free calling to my buddies that I get to join PhoneGnome by simply dialing their phone number on my regular phone, the same way I called them before PhoneGnome. The rest of my calls happen the same way as before, whether local, 911 or whatever. There are no monthly or other fees. My friends and I call each other free, without turning on our computers or picking up a separate VoIP phone - without even dialing in any new way. I do the same things I did before with my phone, but now my calls to those that are on PhoneGnome too are automatically free (they don't need to buy the PhoneGnome box to register their number with PhoneGnome - it's free).

For Scenario #2 I want to select a calling plan that matches my requirements. Specifically, with VoIP plans, one is generally balancing price vs. quality and reliability. When looking at price, you need to consider where you call most, or perhaps more importantly, where you're spending the most money. Different VoIP providers and plans tend to always have some good prices to certain places and some not so good prices to other places. There really is no plan with the best prices across the board.

The most convenient option here is to select one of the PhoneGnome plans. To maximize the savings, one should also eliminate or reduce the long distance plan on their standard phone line. There are long-distance services that have no fixed monthly fee. Often you have to opt for on-line or paperless billing. It's worth it, since with PhoneGnome and a VoIP calling plan, you won't be sending calls to your Verizon (or AT&T or whatever) phone line anymore, it makes no sense to pay a monthly fee for a long distance plan on that line. Some people drop all long-distance plans (in which case long-distance calls cannot be made using that line). I don't recommend this. I suggest getting one of the no monthly fee plans instead, so you at least have the option to make a call in a pinch using the landline, if you had to. It doesn't cost any more to do so if you get a service with no fixed monthly fee. Given how cheap VoIP services are, the amount you save by eliminating a fixed fee on your landline alone might cover the costs for all your calls made using a PhoneGnome VoIP service.

The "default" PhoneGnome option is a service called "voovox" which is a per minute service (like SkypeOut). In general, the rates are reasonable and the service works fine. You can see your voovox balance right on your My PhoneGnome site and you can top up right from the My PhoneGnome site (which takes you to the PhoneGnome shopping cart). This is by far the easiest option for cheap calls with PhoneGnome, without complexity. You simply buy credit and PhoneGnome automatically completes the setup for you. It's a great way to test the VoIP waters too, because you can buy $10 worth of credit and try it out without a contract or long-term commitment.

If you make a lot of calls, PhoneGnome also offers a couple of flat rate "unlimited calling" plans. They offer a $14.95/mo plan for unlimited calls to US/Canada and a "Platinum" plan for $21.95/mo that includes calls to Europe, parts of Asia, and common international countries. They also have a plan called "Reach Beyond" that works like MyFavs, except it works for numbers outside the US too - about 15-20 countries, (typically landlines-only outside the US/Canada).

A unique feature of PhoneGnome is that you can select a different plan for your International calls versus your Domestic (long-distance) calls. For example, you could use your landline service for Domestic calls (maybe you like the bundle you already have) and voovox just for international calls.

Hacking PhoneGnome

A very unusual thing about PhoneGnome is that they let us use third-party VoIP services almost as easily as the PhoneGnome plans. Once such a service is configured, it works just like the PhoneGnome plans. You just dial, and calls are sent using the service automatically. This is still geek territory in terms of setup though. Selecting and activating a PhoneGnome plan like voovox above is essentially automated, where all the dark secrets go on in the background, behind the scenes. Not so, if you want to setup a third-party provider. You have to be comfortable with SIP usernames, proxy hostnames, and so on. If you have configured a SIP softphone, it's roughly the same thing (although somewhat fewer settings to figure out).

Here's how to get to the option for using a third-party provider:

Features / Low Cost Internet Calling / Edit / [Add Internet Calling Service] / Manual SIP Settings

PhoneGnome provides a site where users can share their experience with third-party providers. There is a link to this on the Manual SIP Settings page where you can see if other PhoneGnome users have anything to say about the service you want to try. People have used the following services with PhoneGnome: Junction Networks, voipcheap, SIP Discount, VOIPBuster, Sipgate.co.uk, Gizmo Project, wengo, VOIPdiscount, Diamondcard.us, Onesuite.com, Inphonex, Voxee.com, FonoSIP, Terracall, VoicePulse, CALLcentric.com, and others, which speaks to the flexibility and compatibility of the PhoneGnome system. Clearly, some services work better than others. You can view the reviews (site here) but you need to be logged in to your My PhoneGnome account to provide feedback about a service.

The other thing to keep in mind, if you want to take the third-party VoIP provider route, is that PhoneGnome doesn't provide support for these DIY services (only for the ones they provide). Their site says:

Note: The capability to select a SIP ITSP service is provided as a convenience to our customers. Your use of this capability is at your discretion. You assume all risk associated with doing so. These services are offered by third-parties and may be subject to terms of use and/or privacy policies of such third parties. Please contact the appropriate third party for further information regarding such terms.



Even More Hacking

If you are the ultimate VoIP enthusiast, boy does PhoneGnome have something for you. They call it "Overrides" and it is a way to direct numbers for a given location (country, city, area code etc.) to an alternative VoIP provider/plan. It's beyond what I'm going to get into here. You can read about it on their blog: Fine-grained Internet Calling Feature

I'll conclude with this from the "Overrides" page:

In general, it's not a good idea to start experimenting with more obscure features like overrides until you are comfortable with the standard ITSP settings (without overrides). Overrides are only useful when you have MORE THAN ONE ITSP provider configured AND you want to direct only certain calls to an ALTERNATE ITSP. The main ITSP settings page defines the main ITSP(s) to be used for all long-distance (national toll) calls and/or international calls. That's all most of us ever need for setting up low-cost Internet calls. Calls are automatically directed to our selected log-distance or international provider. You only need overrides if you want to send CERTAIN international calls to a DIFFERENT provider.

Personally, I'll take that as sound advice and stick with the convenience and simplicity of the basic voovox service (essentially PhoneGnome's version of SkypeOut).

Installation and Setup of the "PhoneGnome box"

This Youtube PhoneGnome installation video shows the process of connecting and setting up the PhoneGnome box.

It covers:

  • Taking it out of the box and physically connecting the PhoneGnome device

  • Letting the PhoneGnome unit perform its one-time self-configuration

  • Creating a "My PhoneGnome" account (a web-based control panel to manage PhoneGnome features and settings)

  • Activating Voicemail-to-email

  • Activating an Internet calling plan for non-free calls (PhoneGnome version of SkypeOut)

All this takes a little under 30 minutes according to the video (the video is edited down to about 4 minutes).

The PhoneGnome box connects differently than a typical VoIP service. It connects to an existing phone service to add VoIP calling and features to an existing home phone service (sort of turning an existing phone into a dual-mode phone).

The company refers to it as "augmenting" an existing line with VoIP functions. The most notable of these are:

  1. Free calling to PhoneGnome members (with or without the box) - this also includes SIP calls and interop with some IM systems including Gtalk, MSN, and Yahoo!

  2. Voicemail with Voicemail to email

  3. Cheap calls to non-members, domestic and international

The important difference here between PhoneGnome and other free VoIP is that calls, whether free, local, or cheap VoIP, are made dialing regular phone numbers. It's an experience with the convenience and simplicity of one phone for everything, without learning new behaviors.

In future posts, I'll go into mroe detail on the available options for "cheap calling" and introduce more of the "coolness" features PhoneGnome adds that are not talked about much around the blogs.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

PhoneGnome is live

PhoneGnome live... had a call come in while streaming uStream. No issues crisp. Sound seems better than other VoIP which is a good start