3jam tries to out-Google Google Voice, launches 'Virtual Phone Numbers' beta

While Google isn’t the type to shake in its booties at the sight of a smaller competitor with a rival product, we’ve spent a bit of time playing with a service the Goog might be wise to keep its eye on: Virtual Phone Numbers by 3jam. The company just announced the public beta availability of this new service today and we have to be honest with you, it wipes the floor with Google Voice in a lot of ways. Of course it falls short in some areas as well, but since it’s a brand new beta we’re hoping to see progress come swiftly. Just like Google Voice, 3jam’s offering provides call forwarding with simultaneous ring, “visual voicemail” available online coupled with email notifications/transcriptions, etc. It also offers several key benefits over Google’s offering however, so GV lovers might want to hit the jump and check it out.

The major difference between the two services at first glance is cost. Google Voice provides most of its functionality free of charge but VPN is a pay service. In terms of features and versatility however, it can definitely be worth the cost — which is a la carte with no monthly plan, or as low as $4.99 per month if you pay for a year up front. Here are some key benefits of VPN over Google Voice as stated by 3jam:

  • 3jam lets you take calls not just on phones, but also on Skype or IM clients
  • Phone numbers for groups: including sharable voicemail, group text messaging, and micro-PBX features
  • Receiving and responding to text messages via email
  • Number portability
  • Free developer API for each phone number
  • International support
  • White label availability [3jam just announced a big deal with Peek to provide SMS services for its devices]

A few of those points are of particular interest to us. First of all, yes, you can port your number into the service. While Google has stated that it’s working on incoming number portability, the feature is available right now with VPN. Next is IM client support. Simultaneous ring is awesome but when you throw IM support into the mix it takes on a whole new dimension. We tested the service with Skype and it worked perfectly — no Skype-In credit required — and the service works with AIM, Gtalk and the like as well, though if you use a third party chat app you may run into some difficulties. Last but definitely not least, SMS handling. VPN will forward incoming SMS to your cell or your email; a feature we absolutely love. If you choose to send SMS messages to your email you can simply reply to the message as you normally would and it will be delivered to your recipient as an SMS from your VPN number. Awesome.

Let’s also not forget an unmentioned advantage over GV: 3jam’s VPN beta is open to everyone, so there’s no waiting for an invite involved.

There are a few things about the service we’d like to see changed of course, and the first is pricing. We have no problem paying for a premium service but the pricing scheme is a bit complex because the service itself has so many variables. This is no doubt a hurdle for 3jam but hopefully with time and new agreements the company can consolidate things and simplify the offering. Beyond that, the key feature the service is missing is the ability to make outbound calls from your VPN number. This is a huge piece of the puzzle for many but since 3jam’s background is primarily in SMS, we’re sure it’ll take them a bit of time before that finish putting together all the pieces. We do have confirmation that 3jam is working on implementing outbound calls though, so sit tight.

The only other real gripe we had involves one of our favorite features — SMS to email. Apparently 3jam’s system doesn’t compare messages it sends to replies it receives, nor does it have whatever magic signature/footer removal sauce some other products have. In other words, replies we sent were delivered along with unwanted chunks of the original message we received. What’s more, when we tried to delete the original message so nothing but our text would go through, the legal disclaimer appended to all of our outgoing mail was sent as well, in its entirety. So instead of our recipient getting one SMS with our three-word response, he received four messages full of legal junk. Sorry dude.

In the end, VPN is a service on the brink of greatness but it needs refining — hence the beta tag. Definitely check it out and don’t be shy with feedback… The more you give, the better the service will hopefully get.

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