AOL's Muffled Voice
The Good: Interwoven e-mail, phone, and Instant Messenger
The Bad: Setup could be a headache. Beware of glitches
The Bottom Line: Fine for bug-tolerant early adopters. Others should hold off
There's a saying among telecom execs: It's not easy to provide phone service. I'd never fully appreciated these words until I tried America Online's new TotalTalk voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) service, which allows for inexpensive, over-the-Web calling (see BW Online, 12/7/05, "Good Call, Comcast"). It's priced at $29.99 a month, with the first month free, for unlimited local and long-distance calling.
The idea behind TotalTalk is ambitious and stunning: AOL (TWX) will link all kinds of communication into one interactive service. Your e-mail, Instant Messenger, and phone will work together, enriching your total user experience. You'll be able to check your e-mail over the phone, see the identity of callers on your computer screen before you answer, and receive and make voice calls on your VoIP phone -- or on your PC.
The reality, however, falls quite short of AOL's futuristic dream. As they say, it's not easy to provide good phone service. AOL is not only trying to do that but also introduce a complex new breed of service. Of course, the more complicated the service, the greater the likelihood of bugs and malfunction. TotalTalk proves that point.
TOO MANY ROUTERS.
The equipment AOL sent me was more complicated than it had to be. Normally, VoIP services work through a simple phone adapter, which is a modem-like box that functions as an intermediary between your cable or DSL modem and your phone. AOL sent an adapter that had a router integrated in it. That's even better, right? After all, a router can make your computer more secure.
Not necessarily. If you already are using a home router, as I was, the combo device will greatly complicate your setup. For starters, you'll need to get rid of your old router and reconfigure the new one to work with your connection (DSL, in my case).
You'll also need to know the user name and password for your Internet connection. I've been using DSL for ages and couldn't remember my password, so I had to call the provider. The person I spoke with told me that resetting my password would be such a bother that I might be better off going without it.
As a result, I ended up with a less-than-ideal setting for TotalTalk, with the router AOL sent me hooked up behind my home router (a very helpful AOL tech-support rep guided me through the setup).
Next, I had to download the latest version of AOL Instant Messenger, AIM Triton Beta, which will soon be released to the public. Perhaps because it's still in Beta, it was a pain to install. When I began a download, an error message flashed. I tried an alternative download method (via a link on the AIM page), and I ended up with a different version of AIM than the one I requested.
After a two-hour call to tech support, during which we disconnected my virtual private network, changed my connection settings, and installed AIM manually (basically, the tech support rep e-mailed me the install file), it finally began to work. Whew! Beware: If you have a firewall, you'll have these installation problems as well.
Then I picked up the phone in hopes of actually using the service. Yes, there was a dial tone. But my phone wouldn't ring when people tried to call me. A tech support rep told me this was due to a problem with my phone, which worked fine only the day before.
I replaced it with a different phone, and my calls began coming through. I still don't understand why my first phone didn't work, since it continues to function when plugged into a traditional line. Still, the important thing was, my VoIP phone worked.
GETTING THE MESSAGE.
When I tried calling my TotalTalk phone from my traditional landline and leaving a message, it was tough luck again. The call did go through (I could hear the phone ringing), but the voice mail didn't pick up. Instead, after a few rings, the phone would receive a busy signal.
I called tech support yet again (by that point, I knew all of the guys there by name, and they knew me).
The rep called my VoIP number, didn't get the voice mail either, and wrote me a virtual "ticket": He said that the root of the problem must be on AOL's back end, and it would take up to 48 hours to fix.
Up to 48 hours? Can you imagine your regular phone company leaving you without voice mail for 48 hours? Neither can I.
Fortunately, being a journalist helps, so I was talking with AOL engineers within an hour. They tried to call my number and record a voice mail, and it worked like clockwork this time. They told me there was a glitch in the system that had been reported by other users and fixed.
BEYOND THE BASICS.
Once I was up and running, I began digging a little deeper. And, I loved, loved (did I say I loved?) many of the features TotalTalk offered. The service links your e-mail (which doesn't have to be AOL) with your AOL Instant Messenger and your TotalTalk phone. It's imaginative and plain cool.
When someone called my phone line, an AOL Call Alert message appeared on my PC, providing me with the caller's number and other information. I could use that pop-up menu to choose to take the call on my computer or my VoIP phone, to ask the caller to call my cell, or to send him or her directly into voice mail. Using the Call Alert pop-up screen, you can even choose to listen to voice mail as it's being recorded.
From either that Call Alert or the AIM menu, I could click on the word "dashboard" to go to my home page on TotalTalk's Web site, where I could see a log of all the calls I've made and received, make additions to my address book (later, you can simply click on an address entry to have your computer dial the number), or manage my voice mail and other features. I could also check voice mail through a link on AIM or the TotalTalk site.
ON THE GO.
The voice mail capabilities could potentially be dreamy. I could get my voice mails delivered as attachments into my e-mail account. I could listen to them on the Dashboard (the TotalTalk Web site). Lots of other services offer that, but AOL has a twist: It allows for mobile notification.
You can register for AOL Mobile, enter your carrier's name and your mobile number, and you'll get a text message on your cell notifying you of the voice mail. Nifty...in theory. The problem is, the feature didn't work. AOL engineers told me that their fellow AOL Mobile folks were updating their pages, and a temporary mismatch between TotalTalk and AOL Mobile was to blame for the glitch. Or my wireless service provider didn't support the service.
TotalTalk had another cool feature that did work, called Express Numbers. It's designed to simplify accessing your voice mail. Normally, if you are calling from another phone to check your VoIP voice mail, you have to enter your VoIP phone number. However, you can simplify your life with this Express Numbers option. You can enter numbers you might be calling from into your voice mail, so the next time you call, you will go directly into the correct menu.
WORK IN PROGRESS.
You can turn on and off the various functions -- call waiting, call forwarding, number blocking -- that come with the service via phone, either by pushing menu buttons or by responding to voice commands. That's right, AOL uses speech recognition, and it's pretty good.
But I had a bit of trouble with the voice menu itself. The phone took its sweet time to respond. I would press a button, but the voice menu would roll on. Then, a few seconds later, the voice would shut up and perform the command. Several times, I had to press the same button twice to get the phone to notice me.
The service is neat to play with, but it's probably not yet ripe to use every day. Still, I expect AOL will get it right, and sometime soon, too. Some of the glitches may go away as it moves its new version of AIM from Beta to a public release. Others might vanish as AOL gains more experience in telecom. After all, providing phone service is not easy, and AOL is striving to provide a next-generation one.