Digital Mailbox Services to see Huge Growth

A Digital Mailbox Service allows users to receive Postal Mail Online. In essence, rather than receive junk mail via snail mail, you can now receive all the junk mail and other mail electronically and access them via the web. Digital Mailbox services are beneficial to users in the following ways:
  1. Organize Accounts & Bills online in one single place – manage multiple accounts and bills online safely and securely with a single username and password. Store documents in a single place and even backup documents to a computer.
  2. Get Paperless Statements – statements that were received via postal mail can now be viewed and managed online.
  3. Pay all bills from one place – Once you get to see all your bills on a single portal, you can pay all bills from a single place as well. On top of that Alerts and reminders may also be provided.
Oh Yeah, the other part of the value proposition for end-users is that it its FREE.

PrivatePhone to shutdown

netzero_logo.gif  Netzero has decided to shut down its PrivatePhone service on February 19, 2008. Subscribers of Netzero’s PrivatePhone can keep their number by transferring the service to Packet8. Netzero has worked out a deal with Packet8 to transfer existing PrivatePhone numbers to Packet8 at a special price.

What is PrivatePhone? PrivatePhone is a free phone numbers with voicemail – in other words, a free voicemail service where all incoming calls are diverted to a voicemail number. The customer is notified of voicemail via email or SMS/text. Customers can check voicemail via the web or by calling the PrivatePhone number from any phone. Each customer can store up to 10,000 voicemails.

PrivatePhone was billed as “Just a life-changing social tool and revolutionary movement all rolled up into one”. The proposition being that it is another number one could give out to for specific purposes (e.g. hotties, potential employers, etc). Netzero envisioned this as a social networking opportunity, thinking that people would leave cool voicemail messages, which then could be embedded on a Myspace, mashed up with Gangsta rap, or do something ‘kewl’ in the social networking space.

It didn’t strike me as a valuable social networking concept and I always wondered how feasible this free voicemail service would be. The revenue model seems to be based on advertising and perhaps by selling people’s email addresses (??). Even though the website was supported by advertising, subscribers didn’t have to utilize the website, as they could simply check voicemail by phone. In fact, regular users would find it a lot more convenient to check voicemail by phone!

Hey, this was a free phone number and probably the main reason people signed up. So I doubt subscribers will migrate their phone number to Packet8 and convert it to a paid service. That’s one of the pitfalls of offering free service – once you offer something for free, it’s very hard to charge for it. Of course, in this case, Packet8 service offers a lot more than a phone number with voicemail.

Startup Ribbit finally comes out

ribbit_logo.jpgBack in July of last year, I wrote about Silicon Valley startup Ribbit when it was a yet another startup in stealth mode, surmising that Ribbit is a softswitch-based VoIP telephony service that is accessible from a browser via a Flash application. Well, Ribbit has “come out” – and announced that its new platform is expected to go on sale in the first quarter of 2008. And this prediction turns out to be correct, but there’s a little bit more to Ribbit than just a Flash application.

The technology is designed to work through virtually any Flash-enabled browser and from any mobile phone or fixed location with an Internet connection, meaning that Ribbit is not limited to a particular device. For example, calls placed on mobile phones can be answered via a Flash widget on a Web browser, on a regular phone, on a VoIP client, or through a desktop widget. Ribbit’s platform will even transcribe user voice mail into text messages (another also ran). And it will offer support for existing Web-based voice services, such as Google Talk, MSN, and Skype.

Basically, Ribbit is trying to make voice easy-to-use by untangling voice from the regular (POTS) phone and alleviating the need to download a client. However, this is not new because Jaxtr, Skype, and others are also trying to achieve that.

What’s interesting is that Ribbit is integrating with other applications – One example is the Ribbit for Sales force workflow integration application, which will enable mobile calls, voice messages, and text transcriptions to flow right into Salesforce.com’s CRM environment on the Web. Ribbit will provide third-party partners and application developers tools for integrating voice into their applications using Adobe’s Flash and Flex tools.

Overall, Ribbit is taking the right approach of integrating with other applications – but this is nothing new. For example, Microsoft is also building voice and ‘Unified Communications’ into applications such as Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, although Microsoft OCS (Office Communication Server) is mostly geared towards business customers

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Ribbit claims to be “Silicon Valley’s First Phone Company”, but there are others such as Ooma, which are also phone companies because they provide call switching. Most importantly, Ribbit is trying to package this as something new – this is nothing but a marketing tactic and smart people will recognize that Ribbit is just one of many in this space.

Solicall reduces Background Noise in VoIP calls

solicall_logo.pngHave you ever been on a conference call where someone’s talking while on the go and its hard to hear the conversation because there’s a lot of background noise? If you have, and are annoyed by it, there’s a solution for it.

SoliCall, Israeli-based privately-held company, announced the release of its PBXMate – a technology that reduces background noise and improves voice clarity in VoIP networks that use SIP. PBXMate runs on Linux & Windows and can work with any VoIP Network that supports SIP. Of course, this is VoIP only, circuit switched phone users need not apply. The device filters calls entering a conference room to enhance the audio quality in conference calls, and reduces background noise coming from external cellular phones or from other external systems.

PBXMate appears to work alongside the conferencing server, rather than be client based. Given that PBXMate has to process the real-time speech to filter out the background noice, it should add some delay to the conversation. The big question is whether PBXMate can do this quickly enough without introducing noticeable delay into the voice path.

Another question I have is “How big is the problem”. I can only imagine that only a handful of conference calls will actually have voice technology delays. In my experience, background noise is a problem in only a small percentage of conference calls (VoIP and TDM-based), so I question how big a problem this is for those who conference call a lot. I haven’t tried this out, but you can download and evaluate the software from http://www.solicall.com/

Agito Networks seeks gold in fast WiFi/Cellular handoff

agito_networks_logo.jpgFixed-mobile convergence (FMC) and the quest to make quick, smooth hand-offs between cellular and WiFi got a shot in the arm when Agito Networks formally launched this week. Agito Networks is founded in 2006 by Pejman Roshan (VeeP of marketing) and Timothy Olson (CTO), both formerly of Cisco’s Wireless Networking Business Unit, and backed by $9 million in investments led by Battery Ventures.

FMC is one solution to spotty cellular RF coverage within buildings (another answer is Femtocells, which Sprint Nextel launched recently). Furthermore, FMC helps leverage the increasing number of WiFi networks in offices and hotspots to make low-cost VoIP calls.

So why jump into a pit with hundreds of FMC players such as Tecore, T-Mobile HotSpot@Home, Kineto Wireless, LongBoard, and Motorola? Turns out that no-one has adequately solved the problem of transitioning from cellular to WiFi quickly and smoothly.

Agito Networks claims to achieve sub-second handover between WiFi and cellular RF networks through a patent-pending location-aware technology that utilizes RF to tell when an individual is approaching “predefined points at an enterprises WiFi coverage edge” after which a mobile-based client cooperates with a RoamAnywhere router (which integrates with the company’s IP PBXs) in order to hand the call over.

Agito Networks’ is targeting its products at medium-to-large businesses looking to save on cell phone bills – Agito claims a 60% reduction in phone charges by routing in-building calls over dedicated IP infrastructure and connecting outgoing calls originating indoors over VoIP.

Agito plans to introduce models ranging from $9,995 to $24,995 in the US later this year. The RoamAnywhere 2000 series Router is designed for small to medium deployments and scales to 100 simultaneous users per appliance, while the 4000 series, designed for medium to large deployments, can handle up to 1000 simultaneous users..

Agito also provides “Zero touch” client deployment which helps administrators to pre-provision groups. In addition, the location-aware policy engine enables users and administrators to create and enforce corporate-wide mobile policies. The Network/IT Admin can even set up RoutePoints and instruct calls to be directed to voicemail when users are off duty.

Seems like an interesting approach – but the FMC space is still at the early stages and feasibility cannot be assessed until products/trials are available.

Will Jaxtr upstage Skype?

Jaxtr has raised a $10 million Series A round led by August Capital with Mayfield Fund, Draper Richards, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Luxemburg-based Mangrove Capital participating. Jaxtr’s registered user base has been doubling every month since its March launch. Most recently, it jumped from 500,000 to 1 million in just 27 days. So, it’s no surprise that Jaxtr needs more money to continue its expansion.

The interesting thing is that three of the investors, Draper Richards, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Luxemburg-based Mangrove Capital, were early investors in Skype. Overall, there’s a lot of venture capital flowing into voice startups. Rebtel grabbed $20 million, Truphone collected $23.4 million, Jajah hauled $20 million, and last month newcomer Ooma topped the list with $27 million.

Why would the same folks invest in Jaxtr? Does Jaxtr have a better future than Skype? The investments indicate that Venture Capitalists, who have insight into these companies and know the market, feel that the voice market is still up for grabs. Perhaps they feel that Skype can be beaten at its game, especially since Skype is not a great solution for mobile phones and seems to be losing its way at EBay.

Here’s the thing. In the voice world, the mobile phone is king, primarily because of the anywhere, anytime convenience of mobile service. Whoever makes voice easy to use (and cheap-er) on mobile phones will be king.

It’s clear that Skype is not this king. Skype has made little progress with being on mobile devices because Skype requires a special client and it is very difficult to facilitate mobile clients. For one, users don’t know how to and cannot be bothered to download and install a client on their mobile device. Second, a lot of wireless phones are pretty much closed to unsanctioned 3rd party applications. More reasons can be found at 4 Reasons You Won’t Have Skype On Cell Phones Anytime Soon.

On the other hand, Jaxtr gives users a unique phone number and web address, so a mobile user can make and receive calls without any special software on a cellular phone, like Skype, or without having to access a web browser, like Jajah. The numbers show this too – Apparently, between 70 and 80 % Jaxtr calls involve a mobile phone.

Jaxtr will incorporate advertising into its services and may also pursue new services on social networks. Longer term, Jaxtr plans tiered monthly minute plans like that kind available today with cell phones. Jaxtr also plans advertising within user accounts. Jaxtr hopes to get 20 million users in the next twelve months and expects around one percent to purchase for additional minutes.

This indicates that Jaxtr has an uptapped market that Skype cannot easily reach. Especially with EBay fumbling with the Skype acquisition (EBay’s acquisition of Skype never made much sense to me). My bet is that Jaxtr will give Skype a run for its money!

NewCo finally gets a crappy name

NewCo, the online video collaboration between NBC Universal and News Corporation that had no name, has finally got a name! and it’s hulu. The naming convention appears to be taking a page from the Internet company tradition of creating meaningless but cute-sounding company names. I don’t think the name has much ‘bang’ or ‘pizzazz’. Frankly, Jaxtr, Google, Yahoo, Skype, Lala, and Joost are better-sounding names. The announcement ends a five-month search for a name. I’m guessing a good sum of money was spent on it.

The site will be in private-beta by October. The site is currently accepting sign ups for an invite to the private beta.

The name may be meaningless, but this is definitely something worth checking out because NBC and News Corp have great content. But, don’t’ expect it to be a YouTube killer!

How Clearwire Got a Content Team Overnight

Amp’d Mobile did two things great (and nothing else worth mentioning): one was to offer cool handsets. The other was to offer a really exciting deck of content (for example, Lil’ Bush). Well, now that Amp’d Mobile is no more, Clearwire has apparently acquired Amp’d Mobile’s 50-plus member content team to lead a new content offering under the Clearwire brand.

Thus far Clearwire has focused on building its WiMax-based fixed wireless broadband and on making marketing agreements with DIRECT and EchoStar and with Sprint, as well as moving from Fixed Wireless Broadband to Mobile Wireless Broadband. All this stuff is focused on building the WiMax-based infrastructure. Clearwire doesn’t have a significant content offering, so it would likely give Clearwire a major boost in content offerings.

However, I don’t see why Clearwire would build a content offering. While at Amp’d, the content team was focused on bringing together content for mobile handsets. in other words, short-form content highly adapted to the small-screen. Clearwire’s primary business (currently) is in the PC-centric broadband data and the non-mobile VoIP environment. Clearwire will have a mobile service offering soon, but I believe this “soon” won’t happen for a while. On the other hand, creating compelling content for the PC-Centric environments is probably a big no-no when there’s plenty of competition from big-pocket, large-mass players like Yahoo! and AOL. Plus, without owning the PC-Centric environment, Clearwire will not have a stranglehold on what content a user can access over a PC.

Some people see a synergy, but there’s really none. Perhaps, Clearwire is thinking long term when it will have a mobile offering and Clearwire got the content team quite cheap (after all, those folks need jobs right?).

Why U.S. MVNOs will find it hard to survive

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First there was the spectacular demise of ESPN Mobile (the MVNO), then there was slow and timely death of Amp’d Mobile. ESPN Mobile was idiotic – who is going to pay about $60 a month the whole year to watch ESPN on a small screen, when most fans follow just one sport (e.g. baseball or football or basketball) and ONLY during the season. Amp’d was stupid – they invested in expanding in other countries, when they were hardly getting any customers in the main base in the U.S.

And now Helio is not so far behind. Helio is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) launched on May 2, 2006 by Earthlink founder Sky Dayton. It is a $440 million joint venture between SK Telecom, the South Korean mobile operator, and Earthlink. Helio runs on the Sprint Nextel network and is marketed to the younger demographic, to carve out a niche with technology-savvy. Helio and its parent Earthlink both reported losses for the second quarter. Helio passed the 100,000-subscriber milestone in the second quarter but only generated $33.2 million in revenue for a $83.8 million loss. Fortunately, the joint owners of Helio have each agreed to provide the MVNO with an additional $100 million in funding (suckers!).

There have been successful MVNOs – the biggest success stories are prepaid providers Tracphone Wireless and Virgin Mobile USA. These folks got early starts and concentrated at the low end of the market. So why is it hard to be a MVNO?

You see MVNO’s are a bit like standalone VoIP providers – because they are mostly unknown and unheard of, MVNOs and VoIP providers have to spend a lot of money on acquiring customers. The mistake MVNO’s make is to market on popular media at a huge cost, and end up mostly wasting their marketing dollars.

The whole point of being an MVNO is to focus on a niche area that others are ignoring and focus on serving these customers well. The key is to know the target market, get the right distribution channels and offer a product the big carriers can’t. This is where MVNO’s must use guerilla marketing tactics to get to the right demographic. MVNO’s should market to targeted media – essentially use the same techniques that Toyota’s scion uses.

Otherwise, Helio and others like it will end up in the RIP list.

Why Skype is Better than Ooma


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Ooma has a lot of buzz and hype around it, despite still being in private beta. But let’s look beyond the hype and compare Ooma with other telephony services. I’m specifically choosing Skype although there are other players to consider. This will give a good idea how Ooma stacks up against Skype and for who Ooma may make sense.

First, looking at features, both Skype and Ooma offer unlimited calls to telephone numbers in the U.S. and voicemail. In addition, Skype has a nice colorful user-interface where you can set your presence status and see your contacts’ (buddies) presence status. There’s also Instant Messaging (IM) capability, and the ability to call both telephone numbers and buddies, no matter where they are in the world. While Ooma charges for all international calls, Skype only charges for International calls to telephone numbers (calls to buddies anywhere are free). Skype also higher voice quality because it uses high-quality codecs (e.g. iLBC) that provides better than toll-quality (what you get with landline phones) that is even good for music. The good thing about Ooma is that you can just use a single telephone number to reach all the contacts (kinda sorta like GrandCentral). Whereas for Skype, there’s a buddy name and a telephone number.

Also, neither offers 911 service, so you still need a local service for 911. In addition, Ooma users your local telephone service. Of course, a broadband service (e.g. DSL, cable) is also required.

Next, Ooma has several concerns about it service, especially relating to privacy. It’s all on this page, and there’s no need to replicate it.

Last but not the least, lets look at price. Ooma costs a flat one-time fee $399. There’s talk about a monthly charge for premium services, but that’s in the future so let’s ignore that for now. On the other hand, a Skype-enabled cordless phone or a WiFi phone costs about $150 (the Netgear WiFi Phone is $120 after a mail-in-rebate). The SkypeOut service to call anyone in the U.S. and Canada is $29.95 per year. SkypeIn (so your buddies can dial a phone number to reach you) with Voicemail costs $60 per year. That’s $90 per year or a whopping $7.50 per month. The cost of a Skype system is even cheaper, considering that Ooma costs up front and Skype costs on an annual basis. Skype devices also come with some nice extras – the SMC WiFi Phone ($160) comes with a free FON WiFi Router and + 12 months of Skype Voicemail. You can use the WiFi router for other purposes as well and comes with a revenue-sharing opportunity.

The break-even price is about 3 years. In other words, Ooma is cheaper if you keep it for more than 3 years. Till then, Skype is the cheaper option. Overall, Skype is a better option for most people because their time-span for electronics is less than 3 years. Three years is a long time – people tend to break things, want to get new stuff, or wont have the receipts when equipment breaks down