MindSpring Gets a New Voice

A project first announced by EarthLink last August has come to full fruition: its SIP-based VoIP softphone service for Windows PCs, now branded as MindSpring *. Not only does the official release of the application formerly known as Vling establish EarthLink as a competitor in the rapidly expanding computer-based peer-to-peer VoIP market, it completes EarthLink’s transition from ISP to Total Communications Provider, joining the company’s existing trueVoice and EarthLink DSL and Home Phone Service services to form a VoIP triple threat.

Like Skype, Gizmo Project, and similar softphones, MindSpring combines instant messaging, ‘presence’ (online status), and voice over IP in a single application. Also like those two softphones, it uses IP Global Sound’s highly acclaimed VoiceEngine (codec) to handle sound issues. But MindSpring follows the Gizmo model much more than the Skype model, in that interoperability is a major goal for EarthLink’s developers.

For starters, MindSpring uses SIP, which is rapidly evolving into a dominant industry standard. EarthLink will issue to each MindSpring registrant a SIP-compatible URI (universal resource identifier) that will allow them to receive calls directly from other SIP clients, without having to be part of a registry peering scheme. The user-name/URI will also serve as a free email address at the MindSpring.com domain.

“That’s part of our vision of an integrated Internet communications experience where where my identity—[email protected]—is now my email address, my IM address, as well as my voice address, ” Tom Hsieh, EarthLink’s director of voice products and engineering, told VoIPplanet.com. “Soon, that address will also be my video address,” he went on. “The one address that people used to use as their email address now becomes their everything address.”

In the same vein, MindSpring’s IM and phone functionality will be interoperable with Google Talk’s, thanks to its use of an XMPP (extensible messaging and presence protocol) gateway. Interoperabilty with other XMPP and Jabber-based IM services will be forthcoming as the product continues to evolve.

As with other computer-based P2P VoIP services, calls to other MindSpring (and SIP) users are free. Connectivity to the PSTN—called Dial Out in the MindSpring environment—will cost a bit more than 2¢/minute in the U.S. (including Alaska and Hawaii) and most of Canada, with variable rates for other destinations. EarthLink is offering 30 minutes of free Dial Out service to introduce new subscribers to the PC-to-PSTN experience.

Included with this launch version of MindSpring—in addition to the free email, mentioned above—are voicemail (WAV files sent to the MindSpring email account) and file transfer capabilities. Familiar softphone features not included—but coming in later versions—are video capability, inbound virtual phone numbers, a Macintosh client, and three-way conference calls.

A unique feature that will also appear in a future release is what Dawn Greenwood, senior manager of products for voice applications, called the message center. “It’s another part of our integration vision”: she told VoIPplanet.com, “one location where you can check all your messages—your offline messages, your voicemail messages, your email messages. Again, given that this is one ID, the idea that you can check all that from your MindSpring location is pretty powerful.”

According to Greenwood, the company expects to launch one or more upgrades incorporating some of these feature improvements later in 2006. “We don’t have an exact time line for each of these features,” she said, but assured us they would be coming in due course.

Meanwhile, EarthLink expects to have a big leg up on much of its P2P voice competition in terms of market share, by virtue of promotion to its approximately 1.5 million broadband subscribers—while many of those competitors are building their user base from the ground up.

* For those of you who haven’t been around the Net that long, MindSpring was a major Internet service provider in the dial-up era that merged with EarthLink in 2000. Its founder, Charles Brewer was famous for promoting the company’s Core Values and Beliefs. His 14 Deadly Sins [of ISPs] essay was a much-circulated condensation of those values. [back]

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