I met Belinda Gallagher of ConnectMeAnywhere.com (CMA) at the London Firefox 2 launch party and decided to take a quick look at the service, which I'd already heard of, which is not surprising as it's had lots of publicity.
They offer cheap international phone calls to over 130 countries from your mobile phone or landline (using VOIP behind the scenes, I presume), with the user just dialling a local phone number. You get 25 free credits when you first sign up to try the service out with, at least for the time being - I don't know how long this initial offer will last.
It's a very smart use of technology, and a good illustration of convergence in communications and telecommunications, notably computers/Internet and mobile telephony - what CMA call MOIP (Mobile over IP) rather than VOIP.
From an initial quick look it's been very well thought through in its execution too, at least on the website front, e.g. (always a bugbear of mine on the usability front) good comprehensive help pages (not accessible from their main page though) and FAQs (including quick-read summary, demos via Flash video and static pages, helpful timezone links).
UPDATE: excellent idea, great website/help - but the service doesn't work. See "Does it work?" below. I'm not going to bother any further with it.
RegistrationYou have to register your cellphone number, giving your full name, email address (though no verification email is sent - UPDATE I did get one some time later) and country, and then add the international contacts you want to call via CMA (up to 20) to a "calling list", though you will "soon" have the ability to call contacts not in your calling list. It would be good if it could automatically add selected contacts from your mobile phone or app like Outlook, but I guess I'm being lazy, 20 isn't too many to have to add manually.
After you've registered, you can add up to 9 other phone numbers (e.g. your home landline) which you can call from.
All the information entry is done via the Web, you don't need to use your mobile phone or download anything to your computer or phone.
You get given one special local number to call per contact you add, and you can get the number sent to your mobile phone via SMS text (which you have to pay for). It would be good if they allowed you to copy the list of special numbers easily to another app on your computer. But I've found that highlighting a number in your calling list and using copy/paste works.
Voicemail by email (V-Mail)You can even send MP3 voicemails to your contacts in any country, if you've added their email addresses to your calling list. I like!
Topping up, and CAFE incentive programmeThere's an online list of pricing/rates, and they show the rates in local currency e.g. pounds sterling in the UK.
At the moment, they're offering a free credit of 25 (pence? pounds?) to get you going, which has no expiry date (usually credit you buy has to be used up within 6 months) so it may be worth signing up for the free trial now, while it's still on offer.
You topup your credit via Paypal or credit card or debit card, in chunks of £5, £10, £20 or £50 for the UK anyway, and they've got a clever "CAFE" (Connect-a-friend-entitlement) referral scheme to incentivise people to invite their friends: when invited friends buy credit, you get free credit too (10% of whatever they buy).
It's a good idea but it would be better if (after the 25 credits special offer free trial period ends) any friends you invited also got say 10% off their first purchase of credit using the promotional code you give them, to incentivise invitees to sign up.
I'm also assuming that when you call the special local number, it just uses up your credits - you shouldn't get charged anything on top of that for the call, not even a local rate call, you should just get charged whatever rate they've shown for that country in the pricing list, at least I hope so.
Where can you call from?The service is currently available if you live in the UK, US, Canada, Australia (calling a Sydney number), Netherlands, or France (see list).
Singapore was also on the list but the service was recently terminated on CMA, possibly because local telecomms companies were worried about the competition..? (though Singapore is still listed on their rates page and countries page).
Where can you call to?You can call people in over 130 countries.
Does it work?I've only had the chance to try one number so far. It helpfully told me how many minutes I would have to call that country, then it rang. But guess what? After a few rings, it did a beep, silence for a few seconds, another few beeps, then it cut out. To add insult to injury, when I tried again it had eaten into my credits. So it looks like you get charged even if you didn't successfully connect.
It could be a problem with the number I was trying to call. (UPDATE: Or maybe because I hadn't clicked the verification email link before trying to call? If the service won't work properly till you've clicked the verification link, then they should tell you so - not let you login, or when you call the number given, tell you that you must click the link first - rather than eat up your credits without connecting you. Bit of a usability fault there if so). I'll need to try others to see. Anyone in the USA, say, Dallas even, care to give me their number to try and call them...?
UPDATE: hah, well so much for that. The first time I tried to call, I was told I had X minutes' calling time, then I got the beeps as mentioned above but didn't get connected. I tried again immediately, and I was told I had reduced calling time, even though I hadn't got through the first time. I checked my credits and, yep, they'd deducted some of my 25 credits. I tried again, some time later, and even though I had over 20 credits left, I was still told I didn't have enough credits left to make the call. I'd have been very, very fed up if I'd bought those credits with my own money. Just as well they give you 25 free credits, but I really won't be bothering to try this service again, myself. I'll stick to Skype or MobileWorld. What a pity.
CommentApart from it not working, at least for me on one overseas number (a bit of a biggie), the only other major downside I could immediately think of was that you have to call a separate phone number for each contact - but even before I could raise that question, Belinda told me that next week they'll be launching an improvement whereby you only need to dial a single local phone number whoever you want to call, and then you enter the first 3 digits or so of a particularly contact's name to call them. They've got other new features planned too, like SMS, special SIM cards, conference calling and email-to-phone. But it would be nice if it worked!
CMA's profit comes from their getting a cut of the amount charged to users when they call/topup. The concept is brilliant. I can see this potentially making loads of money for the founders. I've yet to try it out fully to see if it works on other numbers, but if only they can get the service to work properly and if it is as cost-effective and efficient for customers as it looks (connection/call quality simply have to hold up or they'll lose cusotmers), and if they can keep their pricing sufficiently competitive to keep attracting customers while getting enough of a turn, were I an investor I'd seriously think about buying into this.
UPDATE: However, a service that doesn't actually work is not going to make much money, however much potential there is in the idea and however good the website and the instructions/help. A fundamental point about consumers: customers have limited time and patience, and if you frustrate them too much or too often, they won't keep trying or won't come back. It should be simple, but it doesn't work. I for one won't be persisting with this service.