Innovative VoIP apps stir interest

VoIP technology is becoming more commonplace in the US telecom industry, and it isn't just the large telcos and cable companies that are gaining mind and market share. Smaller innovators are starting to draw interest, too, with innovative approaches and products.

Just last week, a small startup called Jajah grabbed the spotlight, offering a way to capitalize on VoIP technology fairly easily and without microphones or software downloads. Basically, a user goes to the Jajah Web site, types in his or her telephone number, types in the telephone number to call and then waits for the service to call both numbers and initiate the telephone connection. It's basically VoIP for the technically challenged.

The notion behind Jajah, which is based in California's Silicon Valley and has an office in Luxembourg, is to offer a proprietary application that crosses existing communications borders and expands the availability of VoIP technology. (The service can be used by broadband or dial-up Internet users.)

Furthermore, Jajah announced during the CTIA conference this week that it will be available on mobile phones as early as next month. The company has signed agreements to integrate its technology with Opera browsers and the Symbian operating system, which company executives say will open it up to 80 million potential mobile users. Next up will be integration with Opera Mini, a Web browser used on an estimated 700 million Java-enabled phones worldwide.

"People are attracted to Jajah because it is easy to use, there are no downloads, and it is cheap," says Roman Scharf, a company co-founder.

There's no guarantee that Jajah won't simply end up being a victim of its own intense hype (the service scored write-ups in several major American newspapers this week.) Still, it shows that VoIP innovators are hard at work and that the technology's future won't just belong to the ATT's, BT's and Time Warner's of the world.

A recent report from Jupiter Research predicts that 18% of US telephony households (approximately 20 million) will subscribe to a VoIP-based broadband solution by 2010. (Right now just a few million do, but the cable companies are rolling out VoIP across a wide customer footprint.) Much of this market is still up for grabs.

Yahoo also made a recent move into the VoIP space: It introduced its own VoIP offering called Messenger with Voice, late last month. The company plans to integrate the VoIP service with its other services: instant messaging, e-mail, photo sharing and PC-to-PC calling.

Yahoo's real play here is attracting enterprise customers by integrating the voice platform across other applications, devices and networks. That may still take a while, but the effort shows that new integrated VoIP applications will come from a lot of different places, not just the telcos and cable companies.

(Al Senia is the editor of America's Network.)