Dial by e-mail

A new Web calling service only requires that callers know an e-mail address to place phone calls to friends, but the set up could frustrate some users.

A company called Jangl launched a service this week that promises to provide free and low-cost phone calls over the Internet to any phone and from any phone anywhere in the world.

Sound familiar? Well, it should. In the wake of Skype's success everyone and his brother are trying to use the Web to provide cheap phone calls. Jajah, Jaxtr, GrandCentral Communications--they all make similar promises.

Jangl's twist is that it claims all that is needed for its service to work is an e-mail address of the person you want to call. And voila, you'll be making calls for free to any kind of phone your friend is using regardless of where he is. (Of course, the free part is only for a limited time while the service is in beta. After that, Jangl will be charging to connect calls.)

By providing you and the person you're trying to call with phone numbers local to them, the service is ideal for people who don't have international cell phone plans but want to reach someone overseas, the company claims. It's already available in 31 countries. And because you are using a "masked" phone number, you can make calls to people you've met on social-networking sites or through auctions and classifieds without having to give out your real phone number.

I don't usually test services. I'm not a product reviewer. But the Jangl service sounded so cool in the press release and in other news stories, I thought I had to give it a try. Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed since just getting the thing set up was a huge pain in the rump.

Here's how it works: First you go to the Jangl home page and enter your phone number and the e-mail address of the person you'd like call. Then you get a number, local to you, that you use to call your friend.

During that first call, you leave a voice mail message, because at this point there's no way to route your call to an actual phone number. The voice mail is sent to your friend's e-mail inbox. Then he has to listen to the voice mail and click on a link that takes him to the Jangl Web site where he now has to register his own phone number as well as his email address. Then he gets a phone number that is local to him, which he uses to call me back.

Annoyed yet? I was. Not only did it seem like too many steps before you could actually talk to someone, but the instructions on the Web page walking me through the process were also difficult to follow. My friend, who was nice enough to act as my guinea pig to test this service, said the same was true on his end. It took us a total of about a half hour to figure out what information we were supposed to be entering where.

While Jangl claims its service is simpler than other Internet calling services like Skype, because it doesn't require any downloads or headsets, I'd have to say it's just as cumbersome and possibly more annoying to get these phony, local numbers. And unlike Skype, which just connects you when you click on the person's name when you want to make a call, the Jangl service makes you go through a whole song and dance just to connect the call.

When my friend dialed the new phony number for me, he had to first connect to the Jangl service, and then the Jangl service called me to connect the call. When I answered, instead of hearing my friend's voice, I got a Jangle recording asking me if I wanted to accept the call. If I did, I had to press "1". Ugh! Connect the call already!

By this point, I was ready to just pick up the phone and make a normal phone call. As low as long-distance and international rates are right now, I'd easily be tempted to forgo free for convenience.

I talked to Tim Johnson, a spokesman for Jangl, who explained to me that I might be missing the point. He admitted that Jangl isn't the kind of service you'd use if you were in a hurry to get in touch with someone like a business contact. Instead, Jangl is designed for people using social-networking sites, who want to contact their virtual buddies. For example, Match.com, the dating Web site, already uses Jangl's technology to provide a secure calling feature that lets people chat on the phone without having to give out their phone numbers. I must concede that this service might worth the trouble of setting it up, if you really want to keep your phone number private.

But personally, I don't see what the big deal is about giving your phone number to someone. I'm about to turn 34, I've used eBay, Craigslist and Match.com for several years. I've given my cell phone number to dozens of people, and no one has phone-stalked me yet (knock on wood). But maybe I've just been lucky.

 

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