Vopium: The Quiet Mobile VoIP Alternative

Company mantra: Don't try to turn the phone into a PC; just facilitate low-cost international calling and otherwise stay out of the way.

By Adam Stone | Posted Apr 27, 2009
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Since 2006 Danish company Vopium has been quietly making a name for itself as a provider of low cost IP-based international calling. In its latest move, the company announced its mobile VoIP application for iPhone is now available for download from the Apple App Store.

Participation in the App Store in just one more way in which the company says it is pursuing the goal of bringing simplicity to the mobile VoIP experience.

Other companies in this space "are trying to take what they do on PCs and Macs and convert that onto mobile phones," said CEO Tanveer Sharif. "In real life most people don’t use their mobile phones as computers. They make phone calls, they send text messages, but that’s about it."

Vopium has competition from companies like Jajah and Truphone. Looking at the competition, Sharif sees a fundamental difference in the user experiences. Some services require a call-back system to enable a connection. Others ask the user to launch a new application within the phone in order to make a call.

"This is not a normal behavior for somebody using a mobile phone," Sharif said.

Vopium on the other hand runs practically invisibly. Following a simple download, new users get 30 minutes of talk time and 30 international SMS messages for free. Vopium reroutes international calls to a Vopium gateway and then via global traffic carriers as ordinary voice traffic, seeking out the least expensive method available.

The service is compatible with more than 500 handsets across Java, Symbian, RIM BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile. That’s no small trick: It takes a staff of more than 70 to slog through all the necessary coding. Unlike the common operating systems shared across virtually all desktop PCs, mobile phone operating systems can vary not just across manufacturers but even across different models within a single maker’s line.

"What we thought would easy turned out to be a very difficult task," Sharif said.

Although Vopium strives to remain largely unseen, Sharif will occasionally add a feature when it delivers significant customer benefit paired with little interference. Recently for instance the company released Vopium Sync, which automatically backs up a user's contacts and calendar. It’s helpful to keep a contact list intact when switching to a new phone, and also useful for those wishing to receive automated reminders of upcoming events.

Despite such forays into practical functionality, Sharif makes a mantra out of keeping it simple. He notes that while nearly all new phones include integrated cameras, only about 15 percent of those phones can send pictures over the internet. "The way people share those pictures is to show them on the screen to someone else," he said. So why bog down a device with unnecessary features?

In spite of all the recent hype about functionality, "a phone still is not going to run a trillion apps the way I do on my PC. You cannot copy that directly onto even the new phones."

That’s why Sharif is outselling telephony. With 50,000 customers already on board he is pushing for more on a number of fronts. He’s giving free minutes to relevant bloggers, and also distributing Vopium through third-party software providers like Handango and Getjar.

If getting customers is important, getting paying customers is even more important. "With the financial crisis there has been a huge shift from focusing on how many users you have to focusing on how much money you are making," Sharif said.

Thus Vopium has an infrastructure in place to convert new arrivals into paying customers. A failed download will trigger a follow-up email or call, for example. When free minutes are used up, a letter will arrive tailored to the user’s habits. Been calling the U.K.? You’ll likely get an offer for a U.K.-specific calling package. "We will be communicating with you all the time," Sharif said.

Meanwhile, Sharif has his sights set on bigger things, with a Vopium team dedicated to courting Fortune 500 companies. About 10 European corporations already are test-driving the service, Sharif said.

"As soon as we have some testimonials and some cases, we will go out to third parties and get them to approach these [larger corporate] customers," he said. "That is what you are going to be seeing soon. There are a number of smaller players who do not have the muscle power to penetrate the market and you will see more of these partnerships developing.

"Everybody is trying to do everything themselves right now, and in this climate it’s not possible."

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