Constant communication comes with a price. In touch with the world, ever at the ready to call and answer, the sheer weight of our contact applications threatens to overwhelm us at times.
From Outlook to Facebook, Skype to Blackberry to Gmail, and Google Talk to MySpace, to YouTube to Yahoo Messenger run two or three or all of the above and the desktop clutter becomes absurd, not to mention the mental gymnastics needed to manage all those user names and passwords.
"It's communication insanity," said Bryan Hertz, CEO and co-founder of VoIP platform developer TelCentris.
That company recently released what it says is a Damoclean solution to the situation. Besides handling phone calls via desktop or mobile application, its free VoxOx product (now in beta) consolidates the many communications tools in use today into a single, manageable format.
Once a user has downloaded VoxOx, wizards appear offering to set up account access for all of one's services, be they e-mail, social tools, IM, whatever. A dashboard makes all these services readily available. A universal address book scoops up all your contacts.
A nice touch: Select a name in the address book and VoxOx will tell you what apps are attached to that name. If the contact is available via IM, Facebook, and e-mail, a click on the appropriate icon will initiate contact via that channel.
When you're away from the office, you can access your account on the go through the portal.voxox.com entryway. For an extended absence you can download the app onto a local computer and access your account while away from home or office.
VoxOx came to life in a somewhat roundabout way. Along with his father Bob and brother Kevin, Hertz had envisioned such a universal communication tool when he first set up TelCentris, but the partners quickly hit a snag. No commercially available VoIP platform seemed able to support the kind of functionality they had in mind, at least not at a reasonable cost.
"We didn't just want to build another me-too application that skimmed the surface of IM and VoIP. We wanted something that gave away the kind of features and functionality that other companies were charging for," Hertz said. That would include telephony features such as ring-back, music on hold, and find-me follow-me, in addition to the universal communications capability.
Shopping around for an appropriate platform, and assuming 10 million future users, the team got back quotes of $1 billion in licensing fees. "We just about fell off our chairs," Hertz recalled.
|The VoxOx contact screen
Click to see full-size image
So the team stepped back and assembled a group of architects and engineers to build a platform of their own. The result was named a 2007 Internet Telephony Product of the Year by TMCNet.
With the resulting publicity, the company lined up a dozen small phone companies as clients. These telcos now employ the platform to power their unified communications offerings.
Since then TelCentris has built its own telephony offering, with VoxOx as a value add for subscribers and an enticement for new customers.
TelCentris provides a phone number along with free inbound calling and inbound faxing. Beyond an initial package of free outgoing calls, users pay a penny a minute, or $20 a month for unlimited calling between the U.S., Canada, and Europe. A soft client works on Windows and Mac, and the system can be used via the web browser on any mobile phone.
As VoIP telephony goes, it's a comfortable offering, with a few bells and whistles that take it beyond the ordinary. Receive a Google Talk call on the desktop, for instance, and it is possible to conference in a mobile user.
In the big picture, though, the company seems to be staking its future on VoxOx's ability to clean up the communications morass which is where the whole thing started after all.
Hertz says he understands firsthand the need for such a product. On any given day he is running (we are not making this up) Google Talk, ICQ, Outlook, Hotmail, Yahoo e-mail, LinkedIn, Facebook, and a couple of different phone numbers.
Aside: When did he have time to develop a VoIP platform? When does he have time for lunch? But that's just the point, of course. This many modes of communication can be overwhelming.
"On a given day I would have all of those instant messengers running, I'd have windows popping up on all these different interfaces and I would be getting calls on my cell phone while I was in the office in front of a perfectly good speaker phone."
Assuming individual users will jump at the chance to tidy up the comms situation, Hertz is banking on business users climbing on board soon after, with the launch of VoxOx for Business some time in early 2009. Among other things, the system will allow a telecom manager to join together individual VoxOx users to form a PBX through which extensions can be assigned and administrative tasks unified.
"We see it being a good 50 percent of our business in the long run," Hertz said.