After GrandCentral was subsumed by Google, much ado was made about Google Voice. Their service is still unavailable in the UK (unless you're happy using a US number and circumnavigating their geoIP checks for registration) - so until then, UK customers are left out in the cold. Anyway, some people would prefer Google to not have a strangehold on yet another aspect of their life, and this is where other companies have stepped up to the fold. Apple's Visual Voicemail is great for those with iPhones, but it's not for everyone (I would rather eat a sock than own an Apple handset). Some people own Android, SonyEricsson, Nokia or WinMo handsets - they've had just about no choice but to use their carrier's supplied voicemail (which is invariably an awful experience).
...however, this wasn't to last - enter Hullomail. In 2008, the UK company decided to take their existing technology (which they'd been developing and marketing to companies and telcos from around 1999) and make it available to the general public. Today, it's available to US and UK mobile customers, for free, as long as your carrier doesn't charge you for diverting your incoming calls to their voicemail number (my mobile network, T-Mobile UK, was the last carrier to charge for the call divert, until a very vocal campaign made them change their minds in 2009). MobileIndustryReview recently published a useful recap of HulloMail's service from when it first launched in 2008, including a video featuring the head honcho, Andy Munarriz.
On Thursday (7th of January 2010) they announced the launch of their iPhone visual voicemail app - obviating the need for iPhone users to utilise IMAP to access their HulloMails and send short 'Hullos' to each other without placing calls or sending SMSes, another handy step up for the service. As only O2 (the first iPhone carrier in the UK) currently provides visual voicemail to its customers, customers on the more recent carriers offering the device - Vodafone and Orange - will find this a particular boon, just as the Android handset users have been able to enjoy with their own HulloMail app for some time now. BlackBerry users also have their own app - Windows Mobile users (myself included) have to put up with m.hullomail.com or IMAP access, which isn't so bad when push comes to shove (geddit?)
Their web site has a set of preference pages into which you have to enter your various email and personal account details - a little clunky to say the least, especially as there's no "quick setup" or "wizard" option available. After a few minutes of entering details, you're up and running, but it's not quite as shiny an experience as it could be. (see screenshots later in article)
Some proper headway has been made by HulloMail, and it's becoming a force to be reckoned with in the nascent field of third-party voicemail services. However, HulloMail aren't the only people competing for this market... Founded way in February 2005 and discussed with some fanfare in the tech media, Ribbit started off in Silicon Valley. After a fair while developing behind closed doors, it's today owned by (shudder) our beloved British Telecom, having been acquired for the princely sum of $105 million. In early January, they began to send out their latest round of invites to the closed beta, and I jumped at the opportunity to compare and contrast.
What Ribbit offers incorporates HulloMail's core offering, but they bill themselves as a much larger service. As well as integrated corporate offerings, its new public service, Ribbit Mobile, has a similar premise to HulloMail: voicemail management and email/SMS reporting. Where Ribbit Mobile differs is that it also offers Google Voice-esque features; dynamic and simultaneous call routing based on rules using their own 'softswitch' technology, voicemail transcription (using either machine or PhoneTag-assisted human interpretation).
Cheaper outbound calling is also on offer (using Ribbit's SIP service), with the aim of allowing customers to dial a local or national gateway number to route the call via Ribbit's network for the international leg at a significantly reduced cost / for free. As well as SIP, they have XMPP, Skype and Google Voice support - and an API integratable with Adobe FLEX, allowing end-users or developers to implement their service alongside existing systems (and this is where they're hoping the big draw will be). Alongside this, Ribbit can query your Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr accounts for incoming callers' details - something they've deemed "Caller ID 2.0".
Ribbit Mobile's currently in free private beta - I'm trialing what will eventually be the Pro package - but I'm sure at some point this year they'll decide to slap some pricing onto it (given that they already proclaim Ribbit Mobile to have a "$30/month value", although there will be a free option available too).
Whilst their service is larger and more sprawling than HulloMail's, both are still trying to share the same market niche to an extent. Having given HulloMail a spin, I've recently been evaluating the Ribbit Mobile beta and on the whole I'm fairly impressed with the implementation.
(Unfortunately I noticed that - on T-Mobile's 2009 Combi tariff, at least - they were charging me for the voicemail divert, which is a little discouraging given it's a London number. A conversation to be had with TMUK in the future, but that's another story for the moment.)
The interesting thing here is market penetration, to use a (much-hated) business term. Ribbit, for all of its features, has a massive featureset. HulloMail has just one core service - better voicemail management. Ribbit is still too lengthy for regular people to configure - even with the on-screen step-by-step guide (which did have some nice realtime checks and callback features) I still had to spend five minutes setting it up. Likewise, although it took only a couple of minutes to provision the SIP service on my VoIP handset, I'd wager most people wouldn't even realise the service was there (the connection details are only listed in the Preferences dialog).
The HulloMail site, main dashboard, options pages and a voicemail
(click for original size)
Which service is better, then? This is a tough one. If you're looking for an all-singing, all-dancing cross-platform monster, Ribbit might just have what you're after. For developers, it's a potential godsend with the API and FLEX support. Their mobile site (m.ribbit.com) offers a simple, lofo interface for people who want to use their handsets for account access. However, is it overkill for the regular customer? Perhaps. HulloMail, offers a single service and does it quite well; their web site is a little less complex (and a little simpler in design), and while they don't have m.hullomail.com set up to deliver a mobile-friendly portal, the core offering of voicemail is still nicely done. You can dial in on either a standard telephone number or use their web site (or your IMAP inbox if you've configured), just like you can with Ribbit.
- IMAP synchronisation - you receive a copy of every voicemail
- Email and SMS alerts of missed calls and new messages
- Web- and email-based message retrieval, playback
- UK- and US-based access numbers
- Visual voicemail apps for iPhone, Android and Blackberry
- Google Mail and 'phone' integration for contacts ('phone' doesn't work for me)
- Easy to follow guides for setting up divert service
- Slightly clunky web site
- Full automated call routing (depending on predefined rules and devices)
- Intuitive initial setup, aided by realtime onscreen guide and checks
- Flash-based web dashboard, with pleasing display of voicemails/missed calls
- SIP service for advanced users
- API for developers, Flash FLEX support (and more)
- More flexible email/SMS notifications for missed calls & new voicemails (a little buggy still)
- US- and UK-based access numbers for the oldskoolers
- Ability to place call via PC using Flash dialer
- iPhone app available
- Ability to scrape contacts from existing social networking accounts (a little wary of this)
- Transcription service, automated or human-assisted
- Email synchronisation to (optional) multiple accounts - for all or selective categories of update (missed calls, transcriptions ready or audio attachments of voicemails in one of several formats)
From a side-by-side feature comparison on its own, Ribbit wins. However, is this enough? Will Ribbit stand the test of time and make enough ground in the near-vicious B2C sector to become the de facto choice for regular users? They're making no headway whatsoever at the moment whereas HulloMail has a comparatively massive headstart.
This is where I start to question their potential market penetration - I believe it'll hinge primarily on which features they decide to include in their various packages once they make them available to the general public. Now more than ever, people are incredibly price sensitive. I would not be willing to pay $30 for the Pro package as it stands, it's simply not worth $30 a month to me. If they offered discounted international call routing on a Pay As You Go basis, I might use that - but again, a monthly commitment would not make it worth my while.
By contrast, I think I'd be willing to pay a couple of pounds a month to HulloMail to use their service - it's fairly nicely presented, easy enough to set up and use (although it could do with a few more improvements for the initial set up process) but more importantly for me, it's from a truly independent British company which feels more end-user-centric.
There's still scope for both services to adapt a little for the direct market - some intelligent call management would be a perfect addition for HulloMail down the line, and likewise some clever pruning of the Pro package would result in a service from Ribbit which might pull in a good deal of international customers (there's a vast, largely untapped market of customers who are living in the UK for just a couple of years - students for example - who regularly call overseas, and at present either buy calling cards or use MVNOs like Lyca Mobile to get cheaper overseas call rates).
My final verdict for now? Well, it's tough to call it at this early stage, but unless Ribbit pulls something out of the bag and makes their service hugely desirable for Joe Public, people are going to gravitate towards HulloMail simply due to their established track record in hosted voicemail. The lack of a paid offering does worry me somewhat - the mantra of YGWYPF has never been more present in the online world - but hopefully they're signing enough deals with telcos and private companies to subsidise the cost of their B2C offering. Even better, I'd love to see the telcos offer a HulloMail-esque service as part of their tariffs, either as a standard feature or 'nicely priced' bolt-on.
My opinion is also largely based on both companies' observed goals; Ribbit seems to be a little rudderless at the moment, building an excellent platform and service but aiming for all customers with no coherent portfolio. By contrast, HulloMail appears stable, mature and established in the voicemail 'market' (if there ever was one). If you get a chance to evaluate both services, please do - you may find you prefer one over the other. However, for the time being at least, I'll be sticking with HulloMail for my voicemail management. (I strongly suggest you give both a spin and see which fits you best, though.)
Do you have an opinion on this? Do you know of any other third-party voicemail service which you'd like to see compared here? Drop me a comment and let me know.