Stellar Startup: Talking to the ends of the Earth

Like Skype? Fring lets you call Skype users on their computers, USB Skype-phones, or cell phones (if they've got Fring on their device) for nothing.

October 28, 2007 08:19


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Talk is cheap in these days of international flat-fee and VoIP phones; and if you and your chat partner are users of IM-type applications that let you attach an Internet phone (like Skype), talk can even be free! Even the "regular" phone companies are getting in on the price-cutting action, as they lose their monopoly status and have to compete with scrappy start-ups for customers. Long distance, thanks to digital switching, can be cheaper than local phone calls in some places, and cell phone service providers, while not as cheap, try to remain competitive in their price setting. Overall, it costs less to talk on the phone now than ever before. There's just one exception to the rule: International long distance calling on a cell phone. Calling the US, not to mention far-flung locales in the Far East, Europe or South America, isn't cheap. It's free! Well, it's free for some people, that is. But if you own one of the 400 Symbian (Nokia etc.), Windows Mobile (Windows smartphone/PDA) or Sony Ericcson UIQ phone or communication devices the program supports you, too, can join the ranks of happy FringTM ( users, who can chat to their hearts content with any other Fring or PC-based IM user anywhere in the world, for nothing! And if you want to call a "regular" phone, Fring's got you covered, too, via its ability to integrate with services such as Skype-OutTM. On average, the company says, the price for calls going through its network is 97% cheaper than a local cell (GSM) phone call. An idea this good should not - must not - remain a secret. And, according to Fring's VP of Product Markting, Roy Timor-Rousso, word is getting out. Tel Aviv-based Fring now has users in 150 countries in the world, and "grows a little bit every day." And those users are loyal; the average Fring user connects to the application's communications network for about four hours a day. Clearly, Fring users love the service - but with free or next to nothing international calls on your cell phone, what's not to love? If there's one word that describes the Fring ethos, it's integration - bringing together platforms, communication protocols, and messaging and chat applications, all under one roof, into one big, happy family. Like Skype? Fring lets you call Skype users on their computers, USB Skype-phones, or cell phones (if they've got Fring on their device) for nothing. GoogleTalk? ICQ? MSN? Twitter? Yep, Fring does them too. You can talk to folks on land-lines as well, using one of 300 plus SIP ISPs; all calls are routed through Fring servers, which communicates and negotiates with the various platforms and applications. That special Fring integration extends to the way the application communicates, too. Instead of using your cell phone provider's network, Fring utilizes your device's GPRS, 3G, and even WiFi communications capabilities to make calls. Even though you are holding a conversation, says Timor-Rousso, "when you use Fring, you're actually sending data, as far as the phone is concerned. If you've got flat-rate mobile Internet data plan, you can talk all you want, for as long as you want to anyone else for free if they have Fring on their cell phone, or an instant messaging account. The same goes for Wi-Fi, EDGE, or whatever communication protocol your phone uses; Fring works with all of them. It's P2P VoIP on a cell phone," Timor-Rousso added. In fact, Timor-Rousso says, Fring works with any and all of them - with no guidance or direction from you. "When you're in a public Wi-Fi zone, Fring will prompt you once for connection information and remember it, so the next time you're in that zone, the program will automatically connect. And if you're part of a national or international Wi-Fi network, like iPass in Israel or the Cloud in London, Fring will apply your membership information to all zones in the network." What if you leave the Wi-Fi zone? No problem! Fring will just move onto the next protocol; 3G, EDGE, or whatever. Automatically, of course; there are no buttons to press and no codes to remember. "Our aim was to develop a system that would make using cell phones as easy and cheap as picking up a 'regular' phone," Timor-Rousso says. This technology, called WISPr, was designed for laptops, and Fring is the first cell phone application maker to take advantage of it for Mobile VoIP. The fact that Fring - a single application - can communicate with all major instant messengers is also a great feature. And you get the full range of services that you would with any of the IM programs. Fring will tell you, for example, if your prospective correspondent is on-line or not. If they're there, you'll know it - and if not, you can leave a message. Fring is so good, in fact, there seems to be the makings of a "Fring cult" out there. Judging by the love letters the company has posted on its site, and numerous and overwhelming citations in blogs, Fring is building a very loyal audience for itself. And that is exactly what Timor-Rousso has in mind; right now, the free application is in beta, and Fring isn't selling anything yet. In the future, Rousso says, the company may sell premium services, such as SIP subscription plans, either by itself or with partners - "but everything available in the program for free now will remain free." Like any company, Fring has a bottom line, and the company hopes that users will choose to purchase premium services it offers - and Timor-Rousso believes that users who come away with a positive experience will be happy users, and prospective customers. "We believe strongly in allowing people freedom of choice, and our main objective at this time is building a loyal network of happy users," Timor-Rousso says. The Fring strategy seems to be working. Rashi, a Fring user with family in Australia and business contacts all over the world, practically gushes when she describes her experience with Fring. "I especially like knowing who is on line and when, so I don't waste time chasing after people I can't catch up with at any given time," she says. And the dirt cheap chat prices? "Yeah. That too. Although this is such a great application, the convenience of being able to use your cell phone with all protocols and messaging programs would make it worthwhile even if they charged money for the application," she says. Many others would too, I'd wager - but keeping Fring free makes it perhaps the most perfect cell phone application ever invented.

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