A Simpler Solution for VoIP Phone Calls?

Recently the German company C2Call announced a nice pocketful of impressive numbers. Its browser-based Internet phone service FriendCaller has hit one million users. Equally impressive, the service has generated more than $2 million in revenues since April.

The company claims to be gaining 15,000 new users a day. It also recently landed $2 million in Series A funding from a group of venture investors that includes one of Skype’s original backers, according to C2Call.

Simplicity is the name of the game. In a marketplace dominated by highly functional yet sometimes hard-to-use Internet voice applications, FriendCaller’s designers set out to build something equally robust and a lot more straightforward to operate.

“I find other services easy to use, but for the average user there are hurdles,” said Martin Feuerhahn, founder and CEO of C2Call. “You have to sign up, you have to install software, you have to reach out to other users.” For the average caller these procedures can be stalling points on the road to VoIP adoption.

Half a million users have signed onto FriendCaller in the last two months, presumably attracted by the application’s deliberately simple approach to Internet calling. A user issues an invitation to a call via e-mail, IM, blog, or social networks—including Twitter and Facebook. The invitation can be sent via desktop or mobile device.

The resulting message contains a unique link which, when clicked, instantly connects the recipient of the message back to the caller via the browser. For the person following the link, there is no download or registration required.

The system allows for the two parties to connect with no strings attached: No registration for the recipient, no stopping to download and install in order to complete the call. “We don’t want to force people into the service. If they like the service they can register themselves. So it an open system, not a closed shop like Skype,” Feuerhahn said.

Everything is free unless the caller places outbound calls to real phone numbers, rather than issuing browser-based invitations. Then it’s 2 cents per minute to over 35 countries. Users can purchase prepaid calling cards in increments starting at $5.

While FriendCaller prides itself on being download-free, it is necessary to install an app to use the service on iPhones. There is no sign that the download has stymied adoption: 80 percent of revenue and 60 percent of usage is iPhone-based, Feuerhahn said. FriendCaller has held a place in the top 25 free social networking apps on iTunes since June, C2Call reports.

The uptake on the pay-calling side may be due to Apple’s simplified billing capabilities. Working off on an iPhone, users can buy credits from within an internal application, paying through their iTunes accounts. Not only does this simplify transactions, it also gives consumers a sense of security, Feuerhahn said, as they are paying through a trusted third party, rather than directly to a lesser-known entity.

“That’s what makes it so popular, just that it is so easy to buy. It’s very natural,” Feuerhahn said.

In addition, iPhone usage is spurred on by the ability to gain direct access to one’s iPhone contact directory, thus making it possible to issue an invitation with a click on the contact list.

The idea for FriendCaller arose from a sense that the landscape of Internet-based calling was becoming too cluttered and confusing. The effort to sweep the street clean was by no means an easy one, from a technological point of view.

To create a simplified, platform-agnostic tool, engineers had a high hurdle to cross. “The technical challenges were in the encoding, the decoding, the streaming, the firewall,” Feuerhahn said. “Then the application has got to be small; it has to have a tiny footprint. You must be very careful not to take too much power from the CPU. And yet you must make it fully functional and you must get voice quality.”

Manage all that, and you still have to pass the “can your mom do it?” test.

With many VoIP services, “it’s just so complicated,” Feuerhahn said, “where if you send a link to your mother and say—Mom, just click on it and we can talk—that is much easier.”

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