ComBOTS is a German company that has just taken its product to beta and appears aimed to carve a chunk out of Skype’s potential customer base. You’ll have to get in line for an account right now but it’s worth an early look at the site. ComBOTS is a Windows based desktop client that facilitates one-to-one communication by VOIP, file transfer, IM and a whole lot of avatars. The service promotes itself as spam-free, drag and drop communication.
Clearly a startup that spent a lot of money on its website prior to launch, there’s something a little too polished for ComBOTS for me. None the less, I think this could be a very viable product for people who regularly communicate with a small number of others online. The interface looks very clean and functional. The company has been in the works for 3 years and was started by a team from the German web portal Web.de.
The service is free to use at first and users are asked to buy a subscription after some period of ongoing use. Subscriptions run between 2 and 3 Euros per month, depending on duration. Users are also encouraged to purchase avatars carrying out a variety of expressions or gestures for about 1 Euro or about $13 USD (10 Euros) for a suite of avatar expressions. The service is ad free.
The company announced on Friday that it has entered into licensing agreements with New Line Cinema for The Lord of the Rings avatars, Paws (Garfield) and United Media, the owners of Peanuts. Look out CyWorld.
Despite their substantial economic potential, I think avatars and emoticon overload are dumb – so let’s look at some of the other functionality here.
The ComBOTS desktop interface is a circle of icons that appear when you hover over a friend’s avatar on your desktop. One of those buttons is for file transfer. When a file is drug into the icon you’re prompted to add comments and then it’s sent. The company says that large files, even hundreds of photos can be sent. No mention of transfer limits, but I’m sure for the casual user being targeted it will probably be sufficient. The system also supports offline delivery of transfered files.
Another button is for VOIP calls, which are apparently free. Making VOIP a loss leader in a strategy to sell avatars and inexpensive subscriptions is interesting.
I like a good smile or frown emoticon as much as the next person, but I expect that the VOIP is going to be the biggest feature here. If it’s as easy to use as the rest of the system I can imagine many people who might be Skype users chosing instead this much simpler tool. Skype is great but it may be overkill if there are only one or two people you regularly use it to communicate with.
Yahoo! Messenger with Voice is another option that could fill these needs, including the apparently important need for avatars. In as much as Yahoo! is understood as a web and email company, however, ComBOTS’ claims of being a closed, spam free system may be more appealing to some people.
I know that many people are banking on systems for closed small group communication in the consumer space and for making tools built on ubiquitous broadband simple for nontechnical users – but I find ComBOTS distastefully patronizing. At least some of the grass roots German blogosphere appears unpleased as well, with Technorati finding headlines like “ComBOTS must die.” I know I’d rather help my family members learn to use Skype and not receive purring Garfield avatars from them when they are in a good mood. None the less, I imagine that a large market for tools like ComBOTS does exist and for many people it may make sense.