Unified communications is all the rage, and it's all about combining different types of messaging, such as e-mail and voice. Now there's a free service that does just that -- without the expense and hassle of installing server-side software.
Yoomba, which just launched a public beta earlier this month, lets you make VoIP phone calls or conduct chat sessions with anyone in your address book. It works with POP or IMAP mail accounts from Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express; it also works with Web e-mail accounts such as Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo.
It sounded like an interesting idea, so I decided to check it out and see how it works. Here's what I found out.
One interesting thing about Yoomba is that when you sign up for the service, you don't have to supply any identifying information beyond your e-mail address. Go to the Yoomba Web site, and enter the e-mail address you want to use with the service (for testing, I used a Gmail address).
A moment later, a message from Yoomba appeared in my Inbox. Clicking the included Activate link took me to a Web site where it activated my account and downloaded the Yoomba software to my computer. (Yes, you do have to install the program.) Installation took only a minute or two, but the installer closed any open Web browsers or Outlook windows before proceeding.
Interestingly, although the Yoomba Web site says it supports Windows 2000 and Windows XP, an attempt to install the software on my XP laptop resulted in a runtime error, and the program wouldn't run. However, I was able to install it on another XP machine.
I also tried it on Windows Vista. When I attempted to sign in, it just sat there and did nothing. Note that Yoomba doesn't support Linux and Mac operating systems yet, but the Web site says there will eventually be versions for them.
When the installation finished, the Yoomba program opened automatically to the sign-in screen where you enter your e-mail address and password. This can be a bit confusing -- it doesn't prompt you to create a password during the activation process. I had to click the Forgot Your Password? link and create a new password there.
Keep in mind that this is still beta software. You might not want to install it on a production machine, but it caused no problems or conflicts for me. Tech support is somewhat nonexistent; when I wrote to the support address about the runtime error, I got back an obvious boilerplate message that wasn't very helpful.
Once you install the Yoomba software, the contacts from your e-mail client address book will show up in the window, and you can click the phone or chat button next to the name of the contact you want to call (or send an IM). These buttons also appear inside Outlook, Outlook Express, or your Web e-mail interface in Internet Explorer. (The Web site says Firefox is "partially supported.") If the recipient doesn't have Yoomba installed, it will send him or her an e-mail message with an invitation to download the Yoomba software.
Of course, in order to have a VoIP conversation, both you and the party you're calling must have working microphones and speakers. Basically, Yoomba works like MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, etc. -- it's a chat client that also supports voice calling.
The difference is that you can use it from within your e-mail client, no matter what client or type of e-mail service you use. Although it may appeal more to consumers, this could be a useful tool for small business users too, especially those who want to take advantage of VoIP without paying for a traditional VoIP service.
The Yoomba documentation is vague about the technology "under the hood," saying only that it's a totally new peer-to-peer network topology built on top of existing e-mail applications. Other Web sources say Yoomba uses SIP and RTP, standard VoIP protocols.
Beware of contact spamming
The biggest complaint I've heard about Yoomba is that it sends messages to everyone in your contact list, inviting all to join. Because I used a Gmail test account with only a limited address book, this didn't cause a problem for me, but I'd be careful about signing up with your primary Outlook e-mail address. If you're like me, you might have hundreds of names in that Contacts list.
According to the company, it requires that you approve before it sends invitations and picks only your 50 "closest friends" (defined as those with whom you communicate most often). For more information, check out PC World's discussion of the issue.
Yoomba is an interesting idea -- the ability to make one-click VoIP calls from inside your e-mail application is both convenient and clever. But not many people have the software installed at this point, and you can only call those who do.
The documentation implies that eventually you'll be able to use Yoomba to call regular phone numbers (i.e., PSTN and cellular lines), which would certainly make it more useful. Meanwhile, just how useful it becomes will depend on how widely it's adopted.
I think it has an uphill battle to fight, mainly because Skype is already extremely popular. And as far as I can tell, Yoomba doesn't really do anything that Skype doesn't do. And you can already call landlines and cell phones with Skype -- albeit you do have to pay to use those services.
Deb Shinder is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. She currently specializes in security issues and Microsoft products, and she has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional (MVP) status in Windows Server Security.
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