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Transforming Communication

New software from Ribbit could make it easier to stay in touch.
January 4, 2008

Crick Waters is an easy man to get ahold of. Vice president of strategy and business development for Mountain View, CA, startup company Ribbit, Waters can make all his phones ring at once, be they landline, Internet based, or cellular. Answering one phone will make the others calm, as Ribbit’s SmartSwitch technology notifies each device that the call has been picked up. Waters plans to release Ribbit to the general public early this year, offering consumers flexible phone numbers that will work smoothly with multiple devices, and allowing developers to build features that work with all three types of phone.

Satisfying the iPhone craving: Ribbit’s SmartSwitch technology was used by developer Joe Johnston to allow this iPhone emulator, shown above, to place calls. A call placed using SmartSwitch technology could automatically be routed to all of a contact’s devices, including traditional phones, mobile phones, phones that use voice over Internet protocol, and phones that run on applications built using Flash or Adobe AIR.

“There’s nothing more powerful than actually seeing a telephone call come in that you can answer on Google Talk, you can answer on Skype, you can answer on an iPhone, or in a Web page,” he says.

CEO Ted Griggs says that Ribbit will make it easier to stay in touch: a user can specify how she wants to be contacted through Ribbit, and she can choose to have calls routed to all of her devices so that she never misses a call. (A Ribbit user can place a call to any type of telephony device, whether or not the recipient uses Ribbit, so long as she has contact info.) Ribbit also makes it easier for a user to take advantage of stand-alone phone features, such as a service that allows him to check voice mail through a Web page, by providing developers with a means for building new features that work with other popular offerings, and with various devices.

The software behind Ribbit is modeled after the design of carrier-grade switches that currently handle “the last mile” of phone service, explains Griggs. Rather than routing calls between networks, phone companies use these types of switches to deliver calls to residential and business phones and turn on features for them. Ribbit’s software was built to communicate with traditional phones, mobile phones, and a variety of voice over Internet protocols (VoIPs). Like the switches after which it is modeled, Ribbit’s software, says Griggs, has capability for 911 calls, is robust enough to survive damage to some individual elements, and can be enabled with common features such as call forwarding and call waiting.

In addition, Griggs says, the company added integration with Adobe Flash, meaning that Ribbit makes it possible for phones to run inside browsers like other Flash media, such as video games and movies. “We’re not the first ones to put telephony on the computer,” Waters says, “but every time it’s been done, you always have to download and install an application … We wanted to set up our service so it would work with every computer with no download, no install, through firewalls. The one audio service in the world that already does that is Flash.”

For a fee, Ribbit plans to let developers use its technology as a basis to build their own applications and features. Griggs says that Ribbit’s integration with Flash allows Web developers to program for it the way they would any Web application and without having to understand the intricacies of telephony.

Ribbit’s development platform was released in December, and already, applications have been made for both fun and business. One developer, Joe Johnston, built an Adobe AIR application that emulates the look and behavior of an iPhone and allows users to place calls through Ribbit. Another Ribbit application, this one made for, receives messages left on mobile phones and automatically transcribes what is said and stores the transcription files in a searchable format.

Rebecca Swensen, a research analyst for VoIP services at IDC, thinks it’s important for mobile technologies to integrate with Internet telephony. Communication services should eventually tailor themselves to work within the context of the user’s life, she says. She believes that Ribbit is making an early step toward this vision. “The Ribbit platform opens up the possibility of putting control into the user’s hands and making it easier for them to contact people,” she says. However, Swensen notes that, while Ribbit may be first in the game, it’s unlikely to be last. “I would be surprised if something similar doesn’t come out from a company like Google,” she says, “and that could be huge competition for Ribbit.”

The company plans to make money by charging developers for building on the platform, and by charging users for enhanced features for individual accounts.

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