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Toktumi: Skype for grown-ups

Toktumi is a VoIP service for small businesses. It should give PBXes a run for their money.

At Demo 2008 (more stories) tomorrow morning, Toktumi's CEO, Peter Sisson, will take the stage and pitch his company's first product, a hosted small business phone system that turns PCs into virtual PBX extensions.

Phone goes in one end, PC the other.

This is not just another consumer VoIP start-up. The whole service is designed around setting up a workgroup of phones, with a programmable auto-attendant, a touchtone directory for callers, and other business-friendly features. The service requires software on PCs (no Macs, yet) to run, but most of the heavy lifting is done on Toktumi's servers, so if a PC is offline a call will just go straight to voicemail, or get forwarded to another extension or to a standard phone (landline or cellular), depending on how the user has set up their installation.

Also, you get nice integration with your PC: The software automatically reads your Outlook database (and does a better job of it than the expensive ShoreTel software we use at CNET) and scans Google and other optional services and directories.

Toktumi is designed to compete with standard telephone company PBX services and with "on premises" wired phone systems. From an economic perspective, it's a slam dunk: The service costs $12.95 a month per line, plus 2 cents a minute for outgoing calls to most locations (some international and cellular calls will cost extra). As with other VoIP services, there are no taxes or fees that add up on regular phones.

Your PC will display Caller ID info.

You can get a Toktumi number and try it for free for incoming calls and for calls to other Toktumi users. If you want to dial calls to other telephones and you want a number in the area code of your choice or to transfer your current phone number, you'll have to pay.

Toktumi is not really a hardware solution, but the company is selling its giveaway PC-to-regular-phone adaptors for $19 (marked down from a made-up $29.95). Sisson calls them, "customer acquisition boxes," and told me they'll soon be on the shelves of a major office supply chain, next to the phones. These USB dongles let users plug a standard telephone into the Toktumi-running PC and use either it or the PC to makes and receive phone calls. This gives people the illusion that they're using a standard phone system, but with all the features and low cost of the network-based Toktumi VoIP service. Of course, if a user's PC crashes, their phone will not work (although calls will still go to voicemail or get forwarded). That's the trade-off.

I tried Toktumi on my laptop here at Demo 2008. I didn't have a spare desktop phone to experiment with, so I couldn't try the dongle. Voice quality over a spotty hotel Internet connection was outstanding, although the Toktumi network clearly isn't being stressed yet.

I like this service because it solves a real need and it does it at a significant discount to traditional products. Even so, I don't know how many small business owners will be comfortable setting up PC-based phones. I'm not sure the product will be a big seller. But I hope it is.

Toktumi scans your Outlook contacts by default.

See also: Packet8, SpeakEasy, Fonality.