VoxOx goes gunning for Skype, Digsby

What if your telephony tools lived in the same app as your all your instant-messaging protocols? VoxOx merges them into one seemingly all-powerful communications program and throws in some killer extras to boot.

What if Digsby and Skype merged into one seemingly all-powerful VoIP and messaging communications tool? It's a question which, according to San Diego-based telephone company TelCentris, can be answered by VoxOx.

VoxOx, currently for Windows and Intel-based Macs with plans for Linux and PowerPC Mac versions to be released within six months, incorporates features that have not yet been seen all rolled into one package. It's got multi-protocol chat abilities, bolstered by messaging support on the most popular social-networking sites and support for short Web mail reading and writing. It offers a telephony service that includes call encryption; mobile-to-mobile calls initiated by either SMS or via a Web site; a free personal-assistant-style call-forwarding service; and a system for earning minutes by watching ads or responding to surveys.

The main interface of VoxOx intentionally mimics the iPhone.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Entering public beta Monday, VoxOx is able to do all this because the software is being developed by a telephone company, says TelCentris' CFO Michael Faught. "Part of allowing users to take control of their interconnected lifestyle is to allow them to click a button and fire out an e-mail."

One of VoxOx's aims, he said, is to make it as simple as sending an e-mail to initiate any kind of communication. When people are forced to use so many different programs to complete similar tasks, "it has become unmanageable."

Part of that simplification process includes making VoxOx's API open source, said TelCentris' CEO Bryan Hertz. They hope to create a similar open-source community that can build out features for VoxOx that they might not have the time for or even consider. This is a playbook page that Skype also uses to great effect: Skype has several hundred "extras" that most likely have not hurt user interest.

TelCentris' interest in expanding what it can do also comes from its current customer base. Hertz notes that the company provides services to more than a dozen phone companies, and provides hosted phone services to dozens of small to medium businesses globally, with customers ranging from the Philippines to Brazil.

In addition to the features listed above, VoxOx offers 120 free minutes of call time to all registrants at the U.S. rate; a free U.S.-based phone number; international calling; pay-by-minute upgrade plans; voicemail; customizable hold music; video conferencing with VoxOx contacts; two-way text messaging; and tabbed instant messaging for MSN, ICQ, AOL, Jabber, Yahoo, and Google.

To ramp up interest, VoxOx offers all users an additional 120 free calling minutes to every person they recommend who signs up. Users can also watch short advertisements or fill out surveys to earn additional minutes. They've got a sweet deal going for CNET readers, too:

VoxOx's keypad allows for on-the-fly VoIP.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

"The first 500 users to sign up for VoxOx through CNET will receive 1,200 minutes of free calling to U.S. and Canada phone numbers. The 1,200 minutes equal 1,200 'Vox Points.' These Vox Points are also redeemable for international calls at varied rates. Vox Points do not expire, and in coming months, Vox Points will also be redeemable for free gadgets, such as a Bluetooth headset and ATA box."

Click here to take advantage of this offer.

Users can currently share files up to 100MB via a generated download link that they can then share via e-mail or instant message. Mobile access is available from a mobile browser, iPhone, and WAP, with a planned native iPhone app.

Other planned features for the near future include an ATA upgrade for physical home phones, a personal assistant, fax support, the ability to route inbound text to VoxOx or your cell phone, video conferencing with non-VoxOx contacts, untabbed IM, group chat IM, Away message defaults to Social Status, Facebook IM support, and additional IM protocols. VoxOx hopes to incorporate support for LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube on the social-networking side, and Gmail, Hotmail, Outlook, and Mac contact importing.

When you install VoxOx, it's hard not to note that the main Home interface looks like an iPhone. That was intentional, Hertz says. "The interface is skinnable, but the default looks like that for continuity with smartphones," Hertz said.

From there, square icons with rounded corners and highlighted by bright colors take you to 15 program features: contacts, a keypad for on-the-fly dialing, your calling and chat history, account settings, a setup Wizard, Call-Back, Reach-Me, Vmail/Fax, Hold Music, Vox Points, Updates, Invites, Web Portal, Mobile, and the Help button, which jumps to the Web forums, the FAQ, user guides, and videos. Paying users get voice and e-mail support, too.

Call-Back lets users initiate landline and mobile calls from either their computers or via SMS.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

The Call-Back feature is what sets VoxOx apart from other VoIP services. Call-Back has two tabs in it, one for Web-initiated callback and one for starting the callback with an SMS. Under the Web callback, you set the country, country code, and area code and phone number for the number that you want to be reached at, and then enter in the settings for the person you're trying to call.

Hit Initiate Callback at the bottom of the pane. VoxOx will call you from a local number. Pick up and you'll hear ringing through the earpiece as if you've dialed a number. That's VoxOx calling the person at the second number you entered from a number that's local to them. When they pick up, you'll be able to talk as if you've made a long-distance call but without the long-distance charges. The process is simpler than it sounds, and in three tests the call quality for both me and the person I was speaking to was fine. There were no instances of tinniness or echoing.

Initiating the SMS Callback is, in some respects, even easier. Once you set your cell phone number in the interface, you send a text message from your phone to the number 1-323-649-9139. In the body of the message, you must type in 011 followed by the country code, the area code, and the phone number without any hyphens.

The default chat interface.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Shortly after, you should receive a phone call from the permanent VoxOx number that you've been assigned at the top of the main VoxOx interface. Answer it, wait a few seconds, and you'll hear ringing. If you're lucky, the person you're trying to reach won't be freaked out by the unfamiliar local number that's calling them and they'll pick up. I tested this with friends in Sweden and Australia, and again encountered no tinniness, no echo, and no delays.

Unfortunately, I did encounter one angry wife who did not think highly of me waking her up in the middle of the night. My attempts to blame misremembering the time change from Boston to Melbourne on VoxOx were strangely met with extreme derision.

A Home button at the top of the pane makes it easy to jump back to the main interface. The next feature, Reach-Me, lets users configure multiple call-forwarding numbers, as well as set the number of seconds one of them can ring before jumping to the next number. You can also set the number of seconds the dialed number will ring before Reach-Me kicks in, and whether your multiple call-forwarding numbers will be attempted simultaneously or in order.

The Contacts interface.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Given how much it can do, I expected VoxOx to be a massive piece of bloatware. Surprisingly, the installation process took around one minute, and at launch it was using around 90MB of RAM. This jumped up to around 380MB while running eight simultaneous chats and a telephony session--a bit high, but not outrageously so. The computer I tested it on had 2GB of RAM, and was running a fully loaded Firefox, an RSS client, and a jukebox, so I wasn't expecting great performance. However, VoxOx smoothly jumped from pane to pane and there was no sluggishness in its response time.

As you can tell from the list of planned features above, VoxOx is still very much in beta. Many of the features that will make it stand above its competitors haven't been fully rolled out yet, so it's a little hard to judge on its merits as it is. Because it encourages such heavy cross-pollination between cell phones and computers, it'd be great if there was a way to import cell phone contacts. You also cannot, as of yet, begin an SMS Call-Back and have it forwarded via Reach-Me to a different phone.

Even with those drawbacks, VoxOx looks to force changes in the telephony and instant-messaging market that favor users more than they do now--as long as we can all remember what time zone we're calling.

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