Talk is cheap, so they say. It certainly is if your boss pays for your Internet and you make use of the various means of free communication available to the savvy webwatcher
If you have not yet cottoned on to the fact that the principal mobile phone networks offer a service called webtext on their websites, log on quick. Webtexts allow mobile customers to send a text message over the Internet to an Irish mobile for free. There is a limit to the amount of texts you can send per month, but it's in the hundreds – far more than most users need. The online process is easier than normal texting because instead of fumbling over a mobile keypad, users can quickly type their message on the computer keyboard. An online address book also allows faster accessing of the contact list.
One hindrance is the fact that your text can only be 160 characters, longer than the average single mobile text, but shorter that the total text length that most mobile phones allow. It is not too much trouble to send a few texts to the same person, but if two people are webtexting each other a situation can occur where the first texter gives an answer to an unfinished text, resulting in confusion at best, relationship breakdown at worst. Webtexting is very useful to avoid extra phone charges when abroad, or to pretend to be working while seated at a computer.
Software phones (softphones) use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) that allows users to make free calls over the Internet. There are a number of different companies offering this service. The best known of these is Skype. Some of its 220 million users have been enjoying free calls for years, and eBay has been enjoying profits since it bought the company for $2.6bn in 2005. Skype allows you to call other Skype users with a headset and an Internet connection. It also lets you “Skypeout”, which is when you call outside of the Skype network to mobile or landlines anywhere in the world at very low prices.
Another popular feature is their instant messaging service. This is not a new idea, and others like Google do it well, but the Skype format is attractive and has nice features, and seems to act more like a personalised phone operator than any other.
But not everything is rosy with Skype. Some complain about poor sound quality. It should not be used as the sole phone system, as it is difficult to locate users geographically, so calls cannot be routed to local emergency services. The system went down for two days recently, leaving some users, particularly small businesses that have switched over wholly to Skype, without a phone system. Owners eBay also recently devalued the company by €900m due to poor revenue performance.
One of the many companies attempting to steal the VoIP crown is Jajah, who are making inroads, especially since they partnered with chip company Intel. The differences are significant. While Skype requires that a computer be on and connected to the Internet to make calls, Jajah allows you to call without being online or even have your computer on, although you do need Internet access to originate the call. It works without downloads, software or headsets. The system connects two phones, landlines or mobiles. When you sign up to the service you enter your number and that of the recipient. Jajah then calls your phone. When you pick up you are told that Jajah is connecting your call and very soon the person on the other end picks up. Free phone calls!
For many the system is more user friendly than using a headset and Skype. Calls between Jajah users are free, but you pay for outside calls, unfortunately sometimes at prices not much better than those of ordinary networks.
Jajah made a fuss recently when eBay removed their “buttons” (which would allow sellers talk to buyers for free using Jajah) from postings on the auction site, ostensibly due to breach of agreement on external links. No such problem with using Skype on eBay of course.