Ooma: Oh My!

VoIP startup Ooma launched last month with a beta version of its service, and plans to launch commercially in September. The basic principle is straightforward—consumers pay $399 up front (later to be raised to $599, according to the company) for a slick-looking box that gives them free calling for life, with no monthly fees. Ever.

The aim? VoIP for the masses—no geeky headset attached to your PC, no confusing ATA setup, no complicated smartphone interface. And the addition of actor Ashton Kutcher as the company’s creative director gives it an inherent level of cool that no current VoIP offering can match.

“The idea was to bring a voice over IP type service to the mainstream consumer, and in order for that to occur, we had to solve two problems,” says company CEO and founder Andrew Frame. “First of all, calling had to be free—not to other VoIP customers or Ooma customers, but to anybody. And so we solved that problem. The second thing was, you have to be able to do more with this service than you can with a telephone-company–provided service, or what we refer to as a ‘commodity voice service,’ where it’s just about voice. And so we solved that as well, by providing a platform that allows for innovation.”

The first two features that Ooma is making available on that platform are the Instant Second Line—which is relatively self-explanatory—and the Broadband Answering Machine. “If somebody’s leaving you a message, it plays in your house just like an answering machine,” Frame says. “So you can screen your calls, and if it’s important, pick up the phone and you’re now talking to that person—even though it’s recording centrally, which allows you to check it from the Web or have it e-mailed to you.”

The service is available both as a pure VoIP play connected only to the Internet, or in a hybrid mode that uses both Internet and landline connectivity to offer added reliability along with 911 service. “It’s the same hardware, the same product—it’s just a different mode of service,” Frame says. “You can switch between the two if you like.”

Blogospheric consternation
The hybrid mode, though, has caused an impressive amount of panic among bloggers who’ve taken a look at the device. All landline-connected Ooma boxes nationwide form a peer-to-peer network, allowing the company to route calls through the phone lines of other users—and giving Ooma users access to what’s essentially free local calling nationwide.

In response, bloggers have suggested that a determined hacker could find a way to listen in on the calls that are being routed through his or her Ooma box. But Frame is adamant that that’s impossible. “The first consideration when developing this technology was security,” he says. “If there was a way to tap these calls, we would not be able to offer this service.”

Similarly, Frame says, there’s no risk that a call being routed through your Ooma box could finger you for someone else’s criminal activity. “We are CALEA compliant, and you can absolutely trace calls in our system,” he says.

Another gripe in the blogosphere is tied to the fact that Ooma asks for a digital signature, giving the company access to your phone service during the sign-up process. Frame says that allows Ooma to add “call forward busy” to the line (a feature that forwards incoming calls to another number or to voicemail when you’re on the phone, and which the Ooma services require), and to remove any redundant services from the user’s account like call waiting, three-way calling, or voicemail—which the Ooma box gives you for free. “What’s we’re trying to do is ease the pain of re-configuring your line to integrate most efficiently with Ooma,” he says. “All you do is put your initials in, and we’ll provision your phone for you.”

One more focus of many bloggers’ concern (and mockery) is the idea that your average end user would be willing to fork out $399 for the device—but Frame insists that it’s a good deal. “To be able to own your phone service, to be able to own a second line, to be able to own your voicemail, and to have all of these in more innovative versions than what you can get today, $399 pays for itself in pretty short order,” he says.

A new category of product
And the quality of service, Frame says, is best of breed—he notes that some reviewers have already said the voice quality is better than landline. “All I can tell you is we’ve got 48 of the top VoIP engineers, systems engineers, and embedded software engineers in the industry—people coming from Juniper, Redback, Cisco, TiVo, Apple… this sort of talent has never been assembled in order to attack telecom services,” he says.

Frame says a wide range of additional services are already on the roadmap, including simple things like ringtones—though some, he admits, may eventually come with a monthly subscription fee. “This is the top of the first inning here,” he says. “We’ve got a long way to go.”

In essence, Frame says, Ooma is creating an entirely new category of product, with proprietary hardware built from the ground up to serve the designers’ vision—so there’s a lot education required. “It’s a distributed communications platform,” he says. “It’s a Linux box in your home that you own, that provides your phone service. You’re no longer paying monthly fees for phone service—voice is now free.” (Note that “free” applies to North America only; Ooma provides inexpensive offshore calling services.)

And the fact that Ooma has built its own box from scratch, Frame says, is a key differentiator. “It is a holistic experience that was developed by a single company,” he says. “If you look at any of our competitors, they all partner with somebody to get an ATA device, and provide that basic service using an ATA—which has some pretty restrictive limitations.”

Last month, the company launched its White Rabbit program, in which beta users, referred to as White Rabbits, receive a free Ooma box along with three codes for free boxes to give to friends. Frame says demand for White Rabbit codes, helped partially by the demise of SunRocket, has been extraordinary. “We’re getting a ton of [SunRocket] customers calling us up, asking, ‘Please provide me this service,'” he says.

And to be fair, not all bloggers are being negative about Ooma… one person even posted a rather touching haiku in its honor:

Sunrocket is dead.
White rabbits dance on its corpse.
Dude, where’s my Ooma?

Over here at VoIPplanet.com, ours is on its way—stay tuned in the coming weeks for a review.

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