Voice SMS Picks Up Steam

I was telling a friend of mine about “talk and send” SMS messages and his not-too-interested reply was “yeah, it’s called voicemail.”

The incremental ease of spoken SMS messages wasn’t something he was going to be writing home about. But he likes to idle away weekends fiddling with his network so he can turn on the living room TV from his computer, too. Added steps and complexity, if anything, stack up as positives on his value scale.

However, despite my friend’s dim view of it, VoIP and cell convergence via “talk and send” SMS seems to be picking up steam and uReach isn’t the only player out there. Last week San Jose, CA-based Pinger unveiled a public beta version of its instant voice messaging for cell phones.

The company was founded in late 2005 by former Handspring execs Greg Woock and Joe Sipher.

“There are synchronous ways to communicate with both your voice and text with voice phone or Skype calls and text instant messaging,” says Sipher. “Then there’s asynchronous text communication through e-mail. But there hadn’t been innovation in asynchronous voice communication. Sure, there’s voicemail, but it’s clunky and missing basic features like simply replying to a voice message without calling. We kept thinking, ‘Is there another way?’ That’s what we’re doing with Pinger. We’re making voice messages fast and easy, and we’re filling this gap for voice that was already filled with text.”

Pinger marries spoken messages with email. You get messages on your phone and in your email, letting you easily save – and forward – the new location of the softball game or the grandchildren’s first words. Another feature of the service is Web-based account management that can import contact lists from Outlook and other programs, although – alas – not Apple Mail.

Pinger’s service is carrier- and device-independent, which gives it an edge on uReach which is delivered through a service provider. Sign up on the website, create a contact list, add the Pinger number to your phone (put this on speed dial) and you’re in business.

To send a message, call the Pinger number, say the name of the person or group (which works like email groups) you want to send a message to – a real help when you’re driving – and say your message. Voila – it’s sent.

Pinger lets you send a message to anyone with an email address, although only other Pinger members can receive messages on their phones. Retrieval is flexible. Messages can be picked up by phone, email and the Pinger website. In addition, Pinger has an application for the Palm Treo that further simplifies use for that PDA.

Messages are announced on your cell phone with a text message. You call the number and the message plays – no menu, no prompts. To reply, simply press ‘1,’ speak your message and hang up. The message is sent.

Because Pinger also sends your messages to email, you can save them. If you pick up the messages on the website, you can annotate them – “Mark Foley drinks invite” – for future reference, say, when you’re called before the grand jury for a deposition.

Pricing for the service hasn’t been nailed down. The company says it will continue to offer a free service with a limited number of messages. Beta users who signed up before Oct. 1 get six months of free use. However, I signed up today and wasn’t asked for a credit card. Maybe they meant Nov. 1.