The Medium is the Message as VoxOx Unifies, Updates Communications Services
San Diego’s TelCentris is announcing an upgrade to its VoxOx universal communicator service that includes a personal assistant feature, a virtual service that can answer your phone calls and route them according to your personal preferences. With the technology, you can direct phone calls from a family phone to reach you on your cell phone, office phone, or home phone—and you can send phone calls from that pesky sales rep to your voicemail.
The company says VoxOx is meant to solve your personal communications overload by unifying all the different methods that you use to communicate into a single user interface. While the startup faces a number of larger rivals—such as Google Voice—that offer unified communications service, TelCentris executives maintains that its service represents a different proposition than Google Voice or Skype. “There’s really no other product like it that’s out there,” says TelCentris CEO Bryan Hertz.
Before today’s announcement, Hertz told me that while some rivals have combined communication services, most “unified communications” are usually done within the limits of an enterprise software application. Microsoft Exchange Server, for example, enables users to get audio voicemail messages, faxes, and e-mail delivered in their mailboxes, and lets them access their mailboxes from their cell phones or wireless devices.
In contrast, Hertz says VoxOx is “technology agnostic.” Unlike Google Voice, Hertz says VoxOx can be used to integrate a variety of communications services from a variety of third-party providers. So a VoxOx user can combine his or her existing phone number with their Gmail or Microsoft e-mail service and an outside instant messaging provider such as Yahoo, AIM, MSN, as well as social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. “We’re not necessarily here to replace them, but we are here to organize them,” Hertz says.
The new VoxOx service—which is free—also aggregates the user’s list of contacts from different sources into a universal address book that is part of an iPhone-like graphical user interface. “We go much deeper than any of these other tools do individually,” says Hertz.
For example, if you use the VoxOx desktop display to update your status, it cascades through all your social networking accounts, whether this includes Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. “The only way Google will incorporate Twitter would be to buy them,” Hertz quipped. As I reported in November, the name VoxOx is a play on “voice over X,” meaning the system can transmit a voice call over any type of network.
A key underlying difference at TelCentris, according to Michael Faught, the company’s president and chief operating officer, is that the founders didn’t come out of the telecommunications industry per se. Instead, they provided data networking and software development for broker/dealers, which requires automating millions of transactions and providing a variety of features used by banks and insurance companies.
In addition to Bryan Hertz, the company’s founders include his brother Kevin, who is the chief technical officer, and father Bob, the chief information officer. They have bankrolled the business themselves, along with some individual angel investors. TelCentris now has 44 employees.
The VoxOx telephone service, which is a free download from the company’s website, features “dial out” capability from a computer, landline, or mobile phone, along with a free phone number, and a variety of free communication services. “Our model is to give away millions of copies of free software that we’ve developed ourselves,” Faught tells me. “If Nortel or somebody else had developed that for us, we would have had to pay a licensing fee of $50 to $100 for each user’s license.”
The VoxOx download provides unlimited free calls to other VoxOx users, and 100 minutes of free outbound phone calls, that is, calls to non-VoxOx users. Out-of-network calls are charged at the rate of a penny a minute in North America, while the rates for international calls vary, depending on what countries are involved.
“The only thing we charge for are our phone calls and text messaging, and at pretty phenomenally low rates,” Faught says. Users can add additional free outbound calling time to their account by referring a friend who signs up for the VoxOx service, or by signing up for targeted advertising that provides “VoxOx points” for watching certain commercials. “Think of it as frequent flyer miles or American Express points,” Faught says.
Faught explains that TelCentris makes money in a variety of ways. It owns a CLEC, or Competitive Local Exchange Carrier, a business that provides voice and data services that is not one of the traditional telephone companies, which enables TelCentris to collect money for each inbound call from outside networks. TelCentris also generates revenue by powering small telephone companies with its communications service platform, as well as providing hosted switchboard service to small-to-medium customers.
CTO Kevin Hertz told me that when the company introduced its fully featured communications tool in November, they expected to eventually get 5,000 beta users. “We got that many on the first day,” Kevin says, “and before we knew it, we had over 100,000 beta users.”
He says VoxOx2, the upgraded beta version announced today, is being released after the company collected a lot of feedback from its customers. As a result of those recommendations, Kevin says the company has reduced the size of the VoxOx download by a third, reduced the memory required to operate the program, and created a smaller graphical user interface. The personal assistant also was introduced as a new feature of VoxOx2. As Kevin puts it, “We’re unifying all these things because we don’t want you to go anywhere else.”