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Communications

One Account to Rule Them All

A new service combines many ways of communicating.

Thanks to the constant advance of communications technology, there are now more ways than ever to reach the people you know. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that life’s more convenient. Checking every account for new messages can be tedious and time consuming, and nowadays many people have multiple telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and instant-messaging accounts–even several social-networking identities. TelCentris, a company based in San Diego, hopes to untangle this mess by providing VoxOx, a single piece of software that can be used to communicate with contacts in a wide variety of ways.

Multitasking: VoxOx software, pictured above, allows users to make phone calls; send e-mails, instant messages, and text messages; post to social networks; share files; and host video conferences.

Unifying communications tools is hardly a new idea. Over the years, several popular instant-messaging clients have been developed to let users from one network chat with those from others. And as cell-phone use has grown, companies like Grand Central (now owned by Google) and Ribbit (now owned by BT) have focused on bringing together multiple phone numbers. The idea has proved especially popular in the business world, with companies such as IBM building products that combine a variety of communications tools–voice mail, IM, Web conferencing–with business applications like Lotus Notes.

VoxOx continues this trend but offers a more exhaustive list of services. It allows users to send e-mail and instant messages, send text messages, host video conferences, make phone calls, post messages to social networks, and even share files–all from the same place.

Rebecca Swensen, a research analyst with IDC, says that the product is interesting and ambitious. She cautions that “they’re still working out the kinks in terms of how to make it easy to use.” Swensen also questions whether consumers will be willing to put in the effort required to configure a service like this. Although ultimately, the service might make one’s life a little easier, she says, it’s a fairly big commitment to start using a new service, and to get all contacts loaded in and sorted out.

Michael Faught, chief financial officer with VoxOx, says that the service is, initially at least, aimed at younger users who “are confronted with this chaotic world of many kinds of communication tools.” Faught sees social networks as compounding the problem and says that there’s no simple, efficient solution.

A preview release of VoxOx was launched last week and can be downloaded for free for both Windows and Mac computers. After signing up for an account, a user is given a free VoxOx phone number and configures the rest of the service by providing usernames and passwords for compatible IM, e-mail, and social-networking accounts. VoxOx pulls in these contacts, allowing the user to scroll through a composite list and select whom to talk to and how. In some ways, VoxOx functions like a powerful instant-messaging application. Whether messages are sent as texts, instant messages, or e-mails, the conversation pops up onscreen like an IM. A user gets two free hours of calling time within the United States and Canada when she signs up, and has the option to pay for more minutes or earn them by watching ads.

VoxOx can afford to hand out phone numbers for free because it is owned by TelCentris, a communications company with existing infrastructure, says CEO Bryan Hertz. The center of the company’s technology, Hertz adds, is a hub that includes support for a wide variety of communications protocols, which can be extended to include many more. “For every type of communications protocol that’s an open standard, we either support it already or are integrating it into the platform,” he says.

Hertz believes that the real power of the service is its ability to unify different mediums–for example, when a VoxOx user creates a three-way conference call, adding one person on a mobile phone and another on a VoIP call. However, the company acknowledges that there are bugs to be worked out. Some users have reported problems making and receiving calls, while others have posted requests on the company’s forums for support for Linux and Facebook Chat. Hertz says that the company is now focused on responding to this feedback and plans to introduce more features and support soon. The company also plans to launch a version of the application for business users in early 2009.

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