The ooma Headache

An unimpressive ride with a Web-calling device billed as a new era in voice communication

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Your domestic long-distance bill will go away—forever (as long as ooma is around)

The Bad: Sound quality can be dicey, the ooma tone is annoying; Web features are limited

The Bottom Line: Glad my test drive was free. I wouldn't fork over $399

No Internet phone service is perfect. The setup is never as easy as they say. The sound is never as good as on a regular phone.

Sadly, ooma is no exception.

I've been using a test version of the service, due to be released for public consumption in September, for two weeks (see, 7/19/07, "A Web Phone Called ooma"). Granted, guinea pigs like me often encounter kinks that can be worked out before a product's formal introduction. Whatever the case, ooma's makers have their work cut out.

Simple to Use

First, by way of explanation, ooma is an Internet-calling service used in conjunction with a book-sized piece of hardware that resembles an answering machine. The device is expected to sell for $399, though I got my test version for free. You hook up the box to both a phone line and a broadband connection to get free long-distance calling and features such as a free second line. The makers believe that, thanks to lower phone bills, most users will recoup the cost of the device within one to two years.

To its credit, the ooma device has a streamlined, modern design and large buttons. I found it so easy to use that I didn't need a manual to get started. Ooma even volunteers to contact your existing provider to shut off services such as voice mail and call waiting that ooma will provide for free—though some carriers charge you for forwarding calls through ooma, a must-have if you plan to keep your regular phone line. In my case, Verizon (VZ) charges $3 a month for the service.

That minor nuisance soon became the least of my worries. Callers told me they couldn't hear me very well, or detected background crackling. When I called customer service, a representative picked up promptly, put me on hold—and then hung up. When I called back, the same rep told me ooma's engineers are on the case. One of them eventually got back to me and said people I talked to heard crackling because I was browsing the Web while talking on the phone. They said it's a bug they are going to fix, though it remained unresolved two days later.

Unwelcome Sound

Call quality also degraded whenever I was on the phone and receiving a call on the second line. I'd hear brief crackling that would momentarily drown out the voice of the person with whom I was speaking.

Perhaps the biggest annoyance, however, is the special tone heard at the beginning of the call by both the caller and the recipient. It's guerilla marketing at its worst. The idea is that when someone else hears the space-age multinote tone, they'll inquire about it, giving you cause to tell them how ooma gives you free long-distance calling for life.

But here's how it worked for me in practice. The tone sounds first when I pick up the phone to make a call, and again a few seconds after the recipient picks up, often interrupting conversation. So far, no one but my editor, who knows I am doing this trial, has asked me about the sound. Most people paused mid-sentence and then chatted on. After a few weeks of this, I was not about to volunteer the information, and I knew my trial had to stop when an editor took to calling me "ooma Olga."

Hit-and-Miss Online Experience

I also had mixed feelings about ooma's Web features. You can use the site to view call logs, block caller ID on outbound calls, and listen to voice-mail messages. You can erase voice mails right from the Web page, too. Conventienlty, the Web page is set up to resemble your ooma answering machine buttons. Best of all, ooma lets you store as many messages as you want for as long as you want. For those of us who like to keep voice mails from loved ones, this feature is a gem.

But for now, ooma lacks many of the cool features now common to other Web-calling services. I couldn't get voice mails e-mailed to me, nor would the service transcribe voice messages into text. These are all features that Vonage (VG) offers.

However, ooma Chief Executive Officer Andrew Frame says more features, such as e-mail voicemail notification, will be coming soon. His team will need to ensure the kinks get ironed out as—if not before—those tools get added.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.