One Phone, Many Identities

TalkPlus CEO Jeff Black’s resume demands a new cliché: uncontrollable entrepreneur.

Black loves being at the leading, bleeding edge. His history includes launching the first U.S. retail computer store (Tandy Radio Shack), the Alta Vista search engine, and the first Internet maps, just to name a few.

And he’s been dabbling in VoIP for two decades.

At DEC in the 1980s, he worked on an early DECnet phone. “The problem was, there wasn’t enough DECnet in the world to ship one,” Black recalls. “About 10 years later it was resurrected as a broadband phone by Cisco.” Black also experimented in the 1980s with putting multiple inbound numbers on a single pager.

So it’s no surprise that Black’s latest venture, San Mateo, CA-based TalkPlus, is a forward-looking marriage of VoIP and mobile phones to unify personal communications.

TalkPlus began as an IP-PBX company in 2004. But after looking at the dynamics of the business, Black had second thoughts. To launch the product, an extensive customer support organization was needed.

Taking a fresh look at customer needs, Black decided that what people want isn’t a PBX. What they want is to unify communications – for example, different local operations of a single company – without losing local presence. “We set out to build Voice 2.0,” Black says.

The choice of where to deliver that service was simple. Mobile carriers already have coverage, a customer support infrastructure, and their devices are already in everybody’s pocket.

Last month, TalkPlus launched a free trial version of its unified phone communications on mobile phones. This week the company premiered TalkPlus Pro, which includes features aimed at businesses like built-in conference calling.

While plenty of other services can forward calls from other numbers to different phones, TalkPlus is different because it lets you create entire virtual identity for each number.

For example, take a plumbing company serving several communities. It’s important to have local presence in each of those communities. No one wants to call the Bangalore call center when the drain backs up on Christmas Eve. But you don’t necessarily need to have physical operations everywhere.

With TalkPlus, you can create a unique number and listing for each community you serve. Not only do calls come into your primary number, you also see which operation is being called. And when you call back, your customer will see the name and number of the local operation. (However, TalkPlus can’t help you with the accents of foreign call center employees. You’re on your own there).

While you can achieve the same thing by getting local landlines, the cost for each business line is about $60 a month. TalkPlus gives you the same results for less than $5 for each line.

TalkPlus also solves the problem of deciding whom to share your phone number with — for example, the guy you met last Friday night at a bar. You create an identity for your dating persona and give out that number. When a call comes in, you’ll see immediately that it’s a social call and not your boss or customer.

If you decide that you don’t want to hear from this guy again, no need to make up a story about having to sit by the bedside of an ailing grandmother. You can “blacklist” the caller and he’ll get a standard “out of service” message. Or if you get married, you can easily shut down the number entirely.

TalkPlus also has put a lot of thought into the technology side as well.

In addition to calls to mobile and landline phones, the service also supports SIP and Skype calls that are completely VoIP. “I think we are the only player in the world with true SIP dialing from a mobile phone over a voice channel,” he adds.

TalkPlus can also ring calls over to another number without connecting a second call. When asked about this technology, Black winks and calls it “auto-magic. That’s a technical term.”

Another distinctive feature of TalkPlus’ technology lets subscribers make long distance voice calls at low VoIP rates without using the cellular data channel.

Calls go through TalkPlus’ server, which uses a least-cost engine to determine the routing for calls in realtime. “We don’t compress voice calls, but we drop the cost by 90 percent,” Black says. “We offer broadband rates over a carrier-grade network. And you get cheap calls both inbound and outbound.”

The service also allows callers to place calls through a company telephone network, to present a professional “face” for remote workers.

Black is also thinking about the needs of international travelers and will be offering SIM card management. “You register all SIM cards and TalkPlus rings them all,” he explains. You pick up the call with whatever SIM card you’re using at the time.”

TalkPlus works with Cingular, Sprint and T-Mobile on about 70 cell phones currently. Black expects to double the number of phones supported by February of next year. Support for PDAs is also coming in January. In 2007 he plans to expand service into Asia, Europe and Latin America.

In addition to selling direct, Black is promoting the service through other channels including carriers and broadband service providers.

Signing up with TalkPlus is easy. Just sign up on the website, create your identities, download the software to your phone (TalkPlus calls you), and start making calls.

TalkPlus’ pricing structure is about $4 a month for the basic service, with a $3 per month charge for each virtual number. Usage is about two cents a minute.

The company offers several calling plans. It’s important to note that only TalkPlus Pro plans include dial-out identities. The service includes unified voicemail, available from any phone as well as online and via email. The free trial comes with 250 minutes of free calls until January.