TalkPlus: a PBX for Mobile Phones

TalkPlus offers a wide range of Voice 2.0 functionality without the call quality problems of regular VoIP.

By Jeff Goldman | Posted Aug 16, 2007
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Jeff Black founded TalkPlus in 2004 with the intention of building an Internet PBX for corporate customers, but he says he soon got distracted by the idea of offering both consumers and business users the features of an IP PBX without the hassle. "What people are really looking for is all the power and functionality of what's in a PBX, but they want it in the handset of a mobile phone," Black says.

And they want it to be cheap. "I'm a user, I'm in San Francisco, I want to call somebody in London—so figure out the least-cost route to get me to London," Black says. "And if my friends in London want to call me back, how can they call me back in a convenient way—meaning, give them a local phone number in London to call me back on, and it'll just find me anywhere in the world."

To put it simply, Black calls the offering narrowband VoIP. "We use the out-of-band ability to do the call setup, but we take the calls in the voice channel," he says. "That makes us different than every other player in the world, and it means we have perfect quality everywhere we call, anywhere in the world. We never get that jitter on the phone when you're trying to talk to somebody, and our pricing is the same as the VoIP providers."

Voice 2.0
And you still get Voice 2.0 functionality like advanced voicemail and call screening. "When I answer a call, it says press one to take the call, press two to send to voicemail—and we're about to offer another one: press three, and you can screen your calls," Black says. "So I send you to voicemail and I'm now listening in—and if I hit the pound key, I can jump in."

Users can also view their voicemails from their mobile phone or from any Web browser—Black says he's directed his home, home office, office, and mobile lines all to point to his TalkPlus voicemail. "Now I can see all four of my voicemails going through one device, and I can sort them," he says. "I can go onto my mobile phone and say, 'Oh, I'm getting a call from my home voicemail—I'll just let it go to voicemail.' Then afterwards, I can go in and say, 'Show me all my home voicemail messages.' And I can sort them and listen to them out of order."

The system also hooks directly into the SIP environment, allowing TalkPlus users to call not only PSTN numbers but also Google Talk, Gizmo Project– or even an e-mail-address-like SIP URI. "Now I can say, 'I want to call operator@mit.edu,' and hit the call button—and the operator at MIT will answer the phone, because all of MIT is now SIP-enabled," Black says.

Local numbers worldwide
For cheaper international calling, Black says TalkPlus goes beyond the 'call-back' functionality of a service like Jajah to offer 'call-through' instead. If you're in an office at an extension, or in a hotel room, call-back won't work because the system can't reach you directly—so TalkPlus lets you call out to a local number rather than waiting for your phone to ring.

"This allows you to type in a number wherever you are… type in the number you want to call in London, hit return—and what I'm going to do is take your origination number and provision, on the fly in less than half a second, a local number wherever you are that you can call from your hotel room—which will be a local call that will automatically connect you to that number in London," Black says.

That same functionality allows TalkPlus to provision local numbers for users worldwide—giving a user access to virtual offices in, say, London, Brussels, and Tokyo. Using the company's Country Connect service, a user simply picks a location from a pull-down menu and instantly receives a local number in any of 34 different countries that will redirect to that user's own home or mobile number.

Call aliasing
And it's not just worldwide. TalkPlus can also give users any number of local caller ID aliases in the U.S., for work, home and more. "You can manipulate your caller ID to any number that you have legal authority over—so if I don't like giving people my mobile phone number, I can call somebody and put out my work phone number instead," Black says.

For doctors, who often block caller ID in order to meet HIPAA requirements, or for lawyers who may not want to be accessible on their mobile phones, Black says, this can be a great tool. Lawyers can also link each client's contact information to a billing code, so mobile call records are automatically flagged to that client's account. "At the end of the month, they can pull down all their call records and see, 'I called Jeff on the following number, or called me from the following number—and here's his billing code,'" Black says. "It allows them to capture all these billable hours that they couldn't before. We've talked to some small law firms that said on average they believe they're losing about a million dollars in revenue a year from all the phone calls they make while they're in their car… once they get TalkPlus, that becomes billable time."

Black says TalkPlus has been marketing that functionality aggressively to markets like the American Bar Association and to individual doctors and lawyers. Other key vertical markets, he notes, include the military—where the ability to call a local number in the U.S. and reach a family member in Iraq can be huge asset.

Looking to smartphones
TalkPlus will soon be launching a new version of its service for smartphones, including Palm Treo, RIM BlackBerry, and Nokia Symbian-based devices. "The people that have been playing with it in beta have absolutely loved it," he says. "The reason for that is that in the smartphone world, it's 100 percent integrated into your phone—meaning that if I dial 011 and a number and hit 'send,' TalkPlus intercepts that number for you automatically. So we don't change the calling behavior—we just put it through a cheaper route for you."

Similarly, call aliasing can be linked to each contact in the Treo's or BlackBerry's phone book, ensuring that each person you call always sees a caller ID that's appropriate to them, be it for work, home, or anything else. "If you jump into, say, your dating profile and you call somebody, it'll put out the dating number," Black says.

The native integration of TalkPlus' range of functionality, Black says, should make the smartphone offering particularly attractive. "When people see the smartphone app and how well it works, we think it's going to be a mass adoption product," he says.

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