In case it isn’t abundantly clear by now, voice is just another application—bits that can be co-mingled with other data in unexpected ways. Ribbit, a startup that officially launches today and calls itself “Silicon Valley’s first phone company,” takes that concept as its basic premise. It wants to be the platform company for Voice 2.0 applications. If its plans succeed, there will be thousands of new phone apps appearing soon, and they almost all will be Flash apps. In other words, these won’t be stand-alone pieces of software like Skype. They will let people make calls right from the browser and tie deeply into other apps and data on the Web.
“If you were to invent a phone company today,” asks CEO Ted Griggs, “what would it look like?” It wouldn’t be just cheap calls over the Web or a one-trick startup built around a single feature like click-to-call buttons. No, says Griggs, who founded Junction, a VoIP software company he merged with Summa Four and sold to Cisco in the late 1990s. It would be a complete end-to-end environment where developers who know nothing about telephony could plug into and quickly create Web-based phone applications. Ribbit recently closed a $10 million B round led by Allegis Capital, with KPG Ventures participating. The company also raised $3 million (the amount was previously undisclosed) from Alsop Louie Partners in October, 2006.
Today’s launch is a developer launch, not a consumer launch (that will come later in the first quarter of 2008). It is releasing a more robust version of its APIs for its private developer beta, which is open to any programmer. Already, about 600 developers have built Ribbit apps under certain restrictions (they are not allowed to go live on the Web until early next year). These apps range from an Adobe AIR iPhone that can make calls from your computer to a Flash phone with a chalkboard interface to a browser-based phone that works inside Salesforce.com (see screen shot below).
All of these phones can call other Web-based phones (including Skype), VoIP phones, or regular landline and mobile phones. Ribbit handles the calls and other voice-related services (call logs, voice messages, speech-to-text transcription,contact imports, directories, provisioning, billing, security, authentication) and provides the APIs to developers, who build their apps with Adobe’s Flex development tools. (Ribbit does not support Ajax apps because Ajax does not let you access the computer’s microphone, says Griggs, but he might consider extending support to Silverlight, which does). Ribbit will create its own consumer and enterprise phone apps, but it will also host a marketplace where consumers and businesses can find (and buy) Ribbit apps.
For the most part, Ribbit plans on charging for its calls. “There is a company a week that tries to avoid paying for the call. We are not doing that,” says Crick Waters, senior vice president of strategy. It is free to play with the API’s and develop a Ribbit phone application, but once it goes into production and actual calls begin, Ribbit will start charging. Pricing will start at $30 a month for 20 simultaneous sessions, or seats (for, say, call center reps logged into the application making and receiving calls), plus per-minute fees to the regular phone network. (Internet calls are free). The developer can then choose to charge its customers or provide it for free, and make up the cost in other ways. There probably will be free consumer apps from both Ribbit and its developers, but the business opportunity here is for enterprise voice applications that can be charged for. Instead of developing a custom call-center application for $250,000, for instance, an entrepreneur could build the same thing for much less on Ribbit and charge, say, $5 a month per customer service rep (with Ribbit taking $1.50).
At its core, Ribbit has built a telephone switch in software, known as a soft switch. It works just like a switch made by Lucent or Nortel. Except that it is software running on hosted Linux servers. Ribbit’s “class 5″ switch has been tested in Lucent’s labs and passed with flying colors—meaning it is as reliable as any telco switch, Griggs assures me. Ribbit’s soft switch can send calls to regular phones, mobiles, Voice-over-IP, Voice-over-IM, and Web pages. It supports many voice protocols (SIP, Skype, Google Talk’s XMPP). Through its APIs, Ribbit will give developers access to all the functionality of its phone switch. “In the old days,” says Griggs, “it was a hardware box Lucent built talking to a hardware box that Nortel built. Today, there are a lot of clients people are using.” Want to create a unified messaging service that follows you wherever you are, even ringing on your IM or in your browser? No problem.
Sending phone calls over the Web is not what makes Ribbit interesting, though. What makes it interesting is that it offers a way to create voice apps in a familiar Web application development environment that can easily be linked to other Web apps. Voice is just a feature of the Web, and Ribbit recognizes that. The Ribbit phone created as a demo for Salesforce.com, for instance, will not only let sales people make calls to prospects directly from the browser-based CRM application. It will also log the call. And in the next release, it will be able to record portions of a call at a click of the button and transcribe it (Ribbit uses speech-to-text technology from SimulScribe). Other developers have used the same transcription functionality to create phone apps that let people leave voice messages on blogs or on people’s Facebook FunWalls that then get turned into text comments. In the future you might call a friend and hear, “Press 1 to leave a private message, Press 2 to leave a message on my FunWall.” Ribbit has big ambitions. If it can deliver on half of them, it just might become Silicon Valley’s first phone company.
Here is a screen shot of the Salesforce app (click to enlarge):