BT's Ribbit releasing Google Voice competitor

The new telephony service for consumers promises to heat up the phone-number-in-the-cloud battle.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
4 min read

Sure, Google Voice is cool, but it's not necessarily the best Web-meets-phone service one can imagine, is it? The field is still open, and switchboard-in-the-cloud company Ribbit (a division of BT) will stir things up when users get their hands on Ribbit Mobile, a new telephony service for consumers.

Like Google Voice as of last week, Ribbit Mobile adds services to your existing mobile phone number, using a standard telephone company service called Conditional Call Forwarding. You set up your phone service to route to the service when you don't pick up the phone, and it gives you all its features on the calls it then grabs: voicemail, forwarding, routing, and so on.

Ribbit Mobile isn't purely a mobile app, name notwithstanding. Rather, the "Mobile" means that your phone number becomes nomadic, moving to and temporarily setting up residence on whatever voice platform you want to use at any moment, be it a mobile number, a landline, or a VoIP system. Users set up their Ribbit Mobile features on a Flash-based Web site. Smartphone apps are coming, as is, most likely, another Apple app store approval drama.

Ribbit CEO Ted Griggs doesn't seem to want Ribbit compared directly to Google Voice, since Ribbit is a telephony platform company with ambitions well beyond the consumer app. Ribbit's revenues to date have come from its platform business. But Ribbit Mobile will be compared with Google Voice, and it's a fair and interesting battle.

Ribbit Mobile does a lot, but the Flash app is a little busy. Ribbit

Ribbit Mobile bests Google Voice in a few key ways. Its voicemail transcription feature will be better, although users won't get that feature for nothing. Free users will get machine speech-to-text, with likely the same quality of amusing and borderline-useless transcriptions as in Google Voice. But paid users will also have the option of using human-assisted transcription so their voicemail-to-text messages are actually sensible and useful.

Ribbit can also connect to VoIP services like Skype or SIP phones (Google works with phone-company phones and SIP, but not directly with Skype), as well as voice-chat features in some IM services, and you can transfer calls between phones while you're talking.

If you're on the Ribbit Mobile Web site or using the mobile app when a call comes in, you'll get a very useful pop-up that shows you not just who's calling but what the system knows about them from their Plaxo profile as well as what they're saying on Twitter. Other real-time information sources may be added later. (See Xobni for a good example of how this kind of just-in-time information aggregation can work well in another communications medium, e-mail.)

The service lets you determine which of your phones ring, and when. Ribbit

My favorite frill is Ribbit's PIN-protected incoming-call feature. You can set up a shared phone like a home phone as one of the phones attached to your account. When a call comes in, you can have Ribbit announce the caller to whomever picks up that phone but not transfer it unless the person who picks up enters a PIN to unlock the call.

I'm told that Ribbit Mobile will also fake out the Caller ID on outgoing calls, so no matter what phone you call from, it will appear to be coming from the number you want it to. I don't see how that can work without either a PC or a smartphone app acting as the dialer, but if there's any company that knows how to get into the major phone switches and do that for consumers, it's a safe bet that Ribbit parent company BT has both the technical and business chops.

You'll be able to buy additional phone numbers for your Ribbit Mobile accounts, but on release you won't be able to fully disconnect your main number from its original, traditional phone service. There's no local number portability feature that will give you the capability to take your Verizon number, for example, and make it a Ribbit number that's independent of your carrier. Although if we look into the future, it's hard to imagine that at some point, numbers and services will not in fact become unlinked.

Other frills include an easy way to build a call return list based on incoming calls and a "shout" feature to send voice blasts to other people.

Now, the downsides: first, the Flash-based Ribbit Mobile app, while pretty and capable, is overdesigned. It has its own in-app windowing system, and in the demo I saw there were little alerts popping up across the screen. It wants to be a full desktop. But I bet that users just want a little app they can tuck into a corner of their screen and forget about.

The voicemail inbox is more traditional. Ribbit

And of course, the iPhone app was still not approved when I met with the company last week. Griggs said that Ribbit divided the app into three pieces--contact, messaging, and phone--to make it more likely that at least some of them will get through approval. As a business hack it might work, but on the phone users will want an integrated system that doesn't require app switching. Hopefully, Apple will see the light soon and drop its capricious blocking of some phone apps but not others. A BlackBerry app is due early in 2010.

Griggs and company are, not surprisingly, very happy with Android as a development platform. "It's an open computing platform at the end of a wireless pipe," he says. But it's also Google's open platform. It will be extremely interesting to see if Ribbit Mobile is able to compete not just in features but in carrier and phone endorsements with Google Voice. Ribbit does have some experience getting into Google products, though: See the company's plug-in for Google Wave.

If you're not yet a Google Voice user, now you really don't have to feel left out. Ribbit Mobile is due to go into open beta Tuesday. Try it instead.