If you rely heavily on Skype, you probably remember where you were when it went down for 36 hours a few weeks back: up a creek.
Skype fell victim to an unrecognized problem it faced from Microsoft's "Patch Tuesday," and Skype claims it has fixed this vulnerability. But the fix came too late for thousands if not millions of users, especially those who paid Skype for expanded services and relied on it for business.
Those who thought ahead had a backup plan in place, while others had to find alternatives quickly. Even with dozens of VoIP services to choose from, traffic for a handful — like Gizmo Project and GrandCentral — went through the roof.
So if you were caught flat-footed by Skype's day off or want to find a secondary service in case your primary service also goes down — hey, it could happen — take a quick look at some of the most prominent and/or innovative Skype competitors.
Remember, it pays to get the sign-up process out of the way now, determine whether your contacts must be on the same service as you and find out whether you'll pay extra to complete calls to a mobile or landline.
Karlsruhe, Germany-based ComBOTS will connect your PC or landline phone with others around the world for free, or at least for no extra charge on top of whatever you already pay for broadband service. ComBOTS's Web site is unclear about whether you can originate calls using your mobile, but you can certainly call other mobile numbers from your PC or landline. That said, communication options from your mobile include photo and other file transfers, chat, text messaging, and emoticons. Pro: Rich-media chat messages including audio and video. Con: Apparently can't originate mobile calls.
Gizmo Project is an open-source VoIP softphone that enables free or minimally expensive calls worldwide. Its spinoff, SIPphone.com, is a startup offering more complex, business-oriented tools that use Gizmo's protocols, including PSTN (public switched telephone network) gateways, voice mail and SIP (Session Initiation Protocol)/PSTN network peering. Gizmo features Call In and Call Out (similar to SkypeIn and SkypeOut). typically for 1.9 cents per minute, instant messaging, and the ability to record conversations or map where caller and receiver are located. Pro: Available for Windows, Linux and Mac platforms. Con: Umm...
Google Talk comes in two flavors: a widget to use from a Google site (with Flash 8.0) and a 1.5MB download. It integrates directly with a user's Google Personalized Homepage, and the Google Talk application automatically loads your contacts from a Gmail account, speeding setup time. Unfortunately, the Google Talk Client currently works only with Windows and BlackBerry devices, although Google promises Linux and Mac OS X versions in the future. Pro: Interfaces available in a dozen languages, including British English. Con: Google Talk does not connect with landline phones or mobiles.
iChat has many of the same features as Skype, excellent voice quality and ready integration with iSight video cameras. It is also less of a bandwidth hog than Skype. The current version, iChat AV for Mac OS X 10.4, is the next best thing to being at a conference table with your co-workers, enabling razor-sharp videoconferencing with three others or audioconferencing with nine. In October, a new version of iChat will accompany the release of OS X 10.5 and add more bells and whistles. Pro: Extremely crisp audio and video built into every Mac. Con: You need a Mac.
Jajah offers the chance to make entirely free PC-to-PC VoIP calls and a limited number of free calls to and from landline phones. You visit Jajah's Web site, then enter your phone number and the number you want to call. Your phone rings and you answer, after which your recipient's phone rings and Jajah completes the call.
Jajah operates on an honor system that allows you about 1,000 minutes per month of free calls because other Jajah users pay to use the company's premium services (such as business accounts, calls to non-Jajah users and some foreign calls). Go over that limit, and Jajah will ask that you purchase some premium services; if you don't, you may be cut off (and remember, they have your phone number). Pro: Mac-friendly, with a plug-in that connects Jajah calling with the OS X Address Book, plus an Outlook plug-in that is in beta. Con: Ceiling on free calls limits usefulness for high-volume callers.
If your company has some IT experts lying around, consider WengoPhone, an open-source application being developed through OpenWengo.com. WengoPhone Classic provides voice and video over IP, while the WengoPhone NG project currently underway completely rewrites Classic to be more modular, extensible and VoIP-provider agnostic. Pro: Open-source. Con: Probably unusable by the nonprogrammer.
ooVoo lets you videoconference with up to six people at onc, and send out video messages rather than emails if your fingers are numb from typing. Although it's currently available only for Windows users, ooVoo's conferencing setup looks strikingly like iChat's, and the company is now developing Mac-friendly software. ooVoo sells several compatible third-party cameras, headsets and speakerphones and runs its own servers, making a Skype-like outage less likely. Pro: Makes video-spamming friends easy. Con: Friends can spam you back.
SightSpeed emphasizes free PC-to-PC voice calling and videoconferencing, and its $4.95-per-month Pro service adds video-mail recording and multiparty videoconferencing. Available for Windows and Mac. Pro: MySightSpeed feature allows voice and videoconferencing via browser with non-SightSpeed members (although both parties require Internet Explorer 6 or higher). Con: ooVoo does most of the same things for free.
Ontario, Canada-based Softroute Corp.'s Vbuzzer allows PC-to-PC voice VoIP-based calling, faxing and videoconferencing for free, with nominal rates for completion to landlines and mobiles worldwide (typically 1.5 cents per minute to the U.S., Canada and China and, 1.7 cents per minute to other countries). Pro: Works with relatively old computers (minimum 500 MHz chip speed). Con: Currently available only for Windows 2000 and XP.
VoipBuster provides free calls — for a price. In what may be a mistranslation from the original German, VoipBuster advertises that if you buy credits, (called "Freedays") you can then make up to 300 minutes per week of "free" calls to landlines in three dozen countries, plus mobiles in the U.S., New Zealand, Puerto Rico and Hong Kong. Go over that 300-minute limit, and you pay VoipBuster's normal rates, which are still quite cheap at 1.2 eurocents per minute including VAT. Pro: Very cheap rates for toll calls. Con: Confusing idea of "free."
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