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There’s not much in a web worker’s life that beats a cheap or free phone service. Perhaps a supporting role in one of David Pogue’s next iPhone video musicals might, but odds are slim. Especially for me and my voice. Or maybe it’s because I have a face for podcasting, I don’t know. I do know however, that the iPhone Mr. Pogue sang about many moons ago can be a powerful VoIP tool if you have the right applications installed. Here’s a quick look, complete with links to the iTunes App Store, at four inexpensive or downright free solutions that are worthy productivity contenders.
Nimbuzz – Version 1.01 recently arrived for free and has potential as a Swiss Army toolset since it offers far more than voice communications. Nimbuzz works with your Skype or Google Talk account for voice calls, but it’s still a bit buggy yet. I was able to initiate a Skype voice call with one of my contacts and the sound quality was amazing over WiFi. Unfortunately, I couldn’t start a Google Talk call and even subsequent Skype voice calls wouldn’t connect consistently. Still, the app just hit the ground so it needs time to get running. Definitely worth watching because it provides IM (in landscape mode, no less) with many other platforms such as Yahoo! Messenger, AIM, MSN, Facebook, MySpace and more. In fact, The Apple Blog had more overall sucess with it than I did, so you’ll want to see their perspective.
TruPhone – While Nimbuzz is just getting started in this space, TruPhone is… well… tried and Tru. It’s a service that GigaOM reviewed almost two years ago and Om still uses heavily to call his family abroad. The application is free, but you will pay for calls to landlines or other mobile phones. Calls in the U.S. for example are $0.06 per minute. Why bother with TruPhone when you already pay for an iPhone voice plan? TruPhone works over WiFi, so if you don’t have a signal or you’re out of the country without an international plan, a hotspot gets you talking. Plus, TruPhone calls to other TruPhone users are free. The company also offers their TruPhone Anywhere service which routes as much of the call over the Internet at reduced rates, which is handy for international calls. Our own Jason Harris gave TruPhone Anywhere a spin earlier in the year although that was prior to the iPhone version.
Fring – Just last month Fring appeared in the iTunes App Store and has already seen a large number of downloads. Like the other apps, Fring offers calling capabilities to landlines and mobiles, but leverages the SkypeOut feature of Skype. Using this method means that voice calls aren’t free as Skype charges for their SkypeOut service. Still, I find it to be a nominal charge since rates within the U.S. are as low as $0.02 per minute. Adding to the VoIP functionality, Fring supports IM on various platforms like AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger plus you can post directly to Twitter. Even better: Fring works with SIP, or Session Initiation Protocol, allowing for use of services like Gizmo, Free World and SIPNET.
JAJAH – Here’s the only app in the list that actually isn’t an application at all. JAJAH offers a web-client at http://iphone.jajah.com/ that you can bookmark on your iPhone and use for low-cost calls. The web page offers a dialpad for numeric entry, but you can also maintain an contact list on your JAJAH account, making for quick calls for as little as $0.029 cents per minute. Two things make JAJAH stand out from the other services. First, the international rates can often be very reasonable, making this a contender if you have clients across borders. Second, only the “middle” part of the call is done over the Internet. When you make a JAJAH call, the service calls you back on your handset and then connects your call recipient through their handset. For all intents: each of you is on your phone, but the voice traffic is routed over the oft less-expensive web. As I result, our test calls were very high quality.
Each of these iPhone apps and services has something to offer, depending on what you’re looking for. But each app has one glaring deficiency, even though it’s not the fault of the software developers: none of them are persistent. That means due to iPhone limitations set by Apple, none of them can run continously in the background. When you close the app, you’re effectively unavailable for VoIP or IM on your handset. That doesn’t diminish the value these services can add, but it’s defintely something worth mentioning. For initiating calls and conversations each offers value, right in the palm of your hand.