If you're like me, you lose a lot of time each week trying to reach people by phone or getting messages from them. I sit at a desk, place a few calls and leave messages, step away for just a moment—then dig through voice mails when I get back. I have a perfectly adequate mobile phone, which I carry everywhere. Sadly, my office phone is too dumb to forward a call unless I punch in explicit instructions.
For the past several weeks I've been trying out two Internet calling services designed to eliminate telephone tag while delivering a host of other features. The first, Google (GOOG) Voice, is a free service aimed at consumers with busy lives and multiple telephone numbers. The second, RingCentral, costs $99 a month and seems especially suitable for small businesses managing staff in several locations, though there is also a $9-a-month version aimed at individuals or very small businesses.
The primary appeal of Google Voice, which is still in a testing phase, is that all of your phone lines—up to six in total—are consolidated into a single phone number. This may not be ideal if your spouse or kids use your home phone, because the call is routed to whichever line answers first. But on the Google Voice Web site you can set rules that allow the home phone to ring only if no other location picks up. I chose to have calls ring through to my cell, home, and office phones at once, and I sometimes adjust the rules to ring phones I use temporarily while traveling.
Few important calls ever fall through the cracks, and when they do, Google Voice provides ingenious voice mail options. All messages go to a single Web-based account, eliminating the need to juggle different greetings and PIN numbers. Messages are stored as audio files, which you can grab off the Web from any computer and forward in e-mails or download as MP3 files. Messages can also be transcribed as text (with mixed results) and sent to you as e-mail. You can then delete the voice mails without listening if you want.
Google Voice's biggest drawback is that you can't turn a number you already own into your Google Voice number. (New Yorkers may have to give up a 212 area code, which is like giving away a pet.) Google is talking about providing users with the ability to transfer a phone number to its service—what's known as "number portability." RingCentral already permits this.
If I were running a four-person consulting firm, RingCentral might be invaluable. It would make my outfit seem, at least over the phone, like a much bigger operation. You get a toll-free 888 number, a local number in your area code, a toll-free fax line, an automated receptionist, and five extensions, each with its own voice mail account. You even get a "dial by name" directory.
To try it out, the company sent me the phone, a Linksys SPA942 from Cisco Systems (CSCO). I connected it to the router in my home office, which links to my cable modem. In about two minutes, I had a dial tone and was making calls, with surprisingly good sound quality.
As with Google Voice, RingCentral's Web interface lets you manage how incoming calls are handled. But the rules give you tighter control. It's easy, for example, to route office calls to your cell phone or even arrange for four different lines to ring in succession, rather than simultaneously.
Every RingCentral number accepts faxes, something Google Voice doesn't do. These are either delivered as PDF attachments via e-mail or you download them from your Web account. You can also send messages as faxes from the Web site. But RingCentral doesn't forward text messages to cell phones, something Google Voice does.
In both cases, calls to numbers in the U.S. or Canada are unlimited. Other international calls incur fees based on the country called, but they're inexpensive. Calls to France, for example, cost 2¢ a minute with Google Voice and 3.9¢ a minute with RingCentral.
Google Voice was in the headlines recently when Apple (AAPL) rejected the service as an iPhone application. Apple claimed Google duplicated some features already on the iPhone, greatly irritating some Google Voice customers who happen to have iPhones. RingCentral has an iPhone app, and I'm told it's developing one for the BlackBerry. With the iPhone app you can make calls that look like they're coming from your RingCentral number. You can also listen to voice mail messages stored in your RingCentral account and even view faxes.
Overall, I like both these services. Google Voice has a ways to go, but you can't beat it for price and ease of use. RingCentral is much better on the business front, offering the same kind of call-management features you see at large companies, but without the need for a lot of expensive equipment. All you need are the phones and an Internet connection. Everything in life should be so simple.
Business Exchange: Read, save, and add content on BW's new Web 2.0 topic networkWhat's Next for VOIP?For some time, people have predicted that Internet telephony combined with Cloud computing could spell the death of old-style office telecom products. In a blog post titled "Could the Cloud Kill the PBX?" Rob Enderle, president of the Enderle Group, a tech advisory firm, describes how this could happen to traditional office phone switches, or PBXs. With services such as RingCentral, he writes, "routing to cell phones or having a traveling VOIP office phone would be relatively trivial."For this and other stories on VOIP, go to http://bx.businessweek.com/voip-voice-over-ip/reference/