I've Got Ooma - Call Me!

About 6 weeks ago, Ooma had a rather eventful launch, and generated some very lively debate among the blogerati and mainstream press as well. I said my piece, and felt I was being pretty balanced and fair compared how others were reacting.

Anyhow, the proof is in the pudding, and I can finally say that I've had a chance to live with Ooma for a bit, and would like to share my experiences with you. There's no substitute for trying out the service to provide a fair assessment, and while I previously had the benefit of a detailed briefing before Ooma's launch, I'm now using it first hand.

As an aside, I have to tell you this wasn't easy to arrange. Being in Canada always seems to present challenges for U.S. companies, and Ooma was no exception. The service is really only set up right now for the U.S. market, so we had to make some adjustments to provision the service for me, as well as to register online. That delayed things quite a bit, but I have it all working now, so here you go.

I'm not going to rehash what Ooma is and is not - that's another conversation. Basically, Ooma is a product, not a service. You buy their box - one-time purchase - and you keep your existing phone line. There is an Ooma "network" for routing calls over VoIP, but you don't pay for that. So, you get the best of both worlds - the reliability, 411, 911, etc. of PSTN, and the cost efficiencies of VoIP. In time, Ooma will provide feature richness too, but not yet.

So, once you get by the idea that Ooma is a product, it's pretty straightforward. You get the box - the Hub - a sleek ATA that looks more like an answering machine than a broadband adapter (actually,that's what it is) - then you connect it to your router and your home phone, and you're done. That's a good thing in some ways, but as I'll explain shortly, not-so-good in other ways.

Enough preamble. Here's what I really like about Ooma...

- Love the name - as intended - Ooma sounds soothing. Any word with lots of vowels will do that, and that's a good thing in a market full of noise, hype and me-too offerings. The flipside is that Ooma can mean whatever you want it to mean - sort of like Skype. Problem is if you don't establish a strong brand identity right away, the name doesn't register much meaning. That's not good, as it weakens your brand and you waste a lot time trying to explain it to people over and over.

- It's a product - not a service. Had a good chat with Andrew Frame, their CEO, about this, and I agree. It's a different approach to the market, and the idea is that it's supposed to be easier for the public to grasp. Products are tangible, services are not. Remember, Ooma is a mass-market offering - it's not for early adopters. When you buy Ooma, you're buying a box, and that's what you get when the courier arrives at your door. As Andrew pointed out to me, when you order Vonage, guess what? You get a box. You've bought a service from them, but you still end up getting a physical product. Some people are bound to find that confusing. I agree with Andrew on this point - but I'm still not so sure the mass market is ready to think of telephony as a product. Time will tell.

- The packaging - it's great (photo below). Very slick, very sleek, very Apple. No doubt, Ooma has stolen a page or two from the Apple book of consumer marketing - good idea. The whole look and feel screams iPod - you can't help but get a sense of anticipation when you see the boxes and look inside.

- The design. Again, the product - the Hub - is the same - very slick, very sleek, very Apple (again, photo below). Consumers like well designed products, and this is something you don't mind leaving on your desk for others to see. You cannot say that about any ATA or router, right? Point, Oooma.

- Voice quality. Nothing else matters if this doesn't cut it. Well, I can tell you that it's great. Every call I've made or taken with Ooma has been carrier-grade. Crystal clear, no hitches. I regularly use 2 VoIP lines for business, and both have their share of problems. It's passable, but it's still VoIP. So far, Ooma doesn't feel like VoIP at all, at least quality-wise. They seem to have gotten this part right.

- Easy set up. I'm not very geeky, and don't enjoy playing around with wires. This took maybe 10 minutes, and the set up guide was well written and easy to follow. It was up and running the first time around, and I've had zero problems since then. Again, this is not a universal truth for consumer VoIP, so Ooma scores high here.

- Instant Second Line. This is their big feature, and it's pretty neat. They're not the only ones who offer this feature, but it's definitely not common with VoIP providers, since they'd much rather you pay to have a second line. This isn't quite the same idea, but it's pretty close. Basically if your phone number is engaged, Ooma enables dialtone for all the other phones in your house, in effect, giving you a second line. If someone calls your house while you're on the line, the other phones ring through for the new caller. Same for making concurrent outbound calls. And - you can link both lines together for an impromptu conference call. Gotta like that. To do this, though, you have to use another Ooma box - called the Scout - a smaller version of the Hub. Once they're all linked together, you get the second line effect - and if you're currently paying for a second line, you'll probably want to drop it once you're using Ooma.

- Ooma Lounge. This is the website you use to manage your calls online. It's similar to other consumer VoIP portals where you have call logs and can listen to your voicemails. As with Skype, this is where you can add funds to your account, which you'll need for making calls outside the U.S. I found the rates pretty competitive - 1.3 cents for Canada, and 2.2 cents for Western Europe. So, you just put $10 in there, and you're covered for a while - nothing difficult about that.

- Broadband Answering Machine - another big selling feature. The Hub is actually two products in one. It's your ATA, but it's also the answering machine. When you have messages, one of the keys flashes to remind you. The other keys are there to manage your messages - play, replay, delete, send a call straight to voicemail, etc. Very intuitive, and pushbutton easy to use. I should also add that once the service was provisioned, the voicemail service was enabled right away - even before I had a chance to record my greeting message. Am not sure if this is true for other phone services, but I thought this was pretty good. I actually missed a call before my greeting message was recorded, and I just figured it went into a black hole. Nope. Sure enough, it was there in my inbox - have never missed a call.

- The Ooma "dial tone". When you pick up the phone, the first second or so plays a unique musical snippet, which is your cue that you're on an Ooma connection. Not a bad idea - takes some getting used to, but you forget about it once you start talking.

- Perhaps most importantly, once you've got it set up, your behavior doesn't change. You still use your same phone, you keep your same number - nothing really changes. Even the "*" features you use to configure PSTN features - call forwarding, call return, etc. - are the same with Ooma. It's all very familiar - there isn't a mention anywhere that Ooma is using VoIP (don't tell that to Vonage). It's all about preserving the existing telephone experience, but at a lower cost. Even though Ooma calls use VoIP and the service is broadband-based, you still get 911 and 411, and if the power goes out, Ooma simply goes dark, and you revert to full PSTN service. Sure, there are concerns about caller ID, but for the most part, nothing really changes - again, ease of use - which goes a long way to gaining adoption.

Ok, so what's not to like? Aside from all the criticisms from the blogs - many of which are valid - I'll just say a few things here.

- Once you've got Ooma all set up, it kind of fades into the background. It's pretty passive - much like an ATA, and that's not good if the box is what you're paying money for. Unless you're making regular visits to the Ooma Lounge, you don't have much reason to interact with Ooma aside from listening to your voicemails.

- Since you're not subscribing to anything, Ooma has no occasion to be in regular touch with you. There's no monthly statement or line item on your credit card. Aside from the Lounge, there's no reason to go to their website, and this is totally a Voice 1.0 product. There's no IM feature or video calling feature, or mobility capability to engage you beyond making regular phone calls. I'm told mobility is coming, but we don't have that now.

- Behind the scenes, Ooma basically takes over your phone service and cancels what you already have in place with your carrier. So, whatever voicemail setting you have, archived messages, and calling features will all be lost. You've got to be comfortable with that, since that's the only way they can what they do. Not everyone will be cool with that, as you cede a fair bit of the control you used to have over to Ooma.

- On that note, if you're not keeping track, you may not be aware of the calling features you've given up, and it's up to you to figure that out. Ooma supports most of them - caller ID, call waiting, etc. - but maybe not everything you're using now. Of course, the upside is that you no longer need to pay for these features, including your answering service.

- The business model here is totally built around the idea that all the money you save in monthly add-on charges will handily justify the $399 investment in the Ooma box. I don't know how much people spend on average, but let's say these features are costing you $10 a month. On that basis, you'll need to use Ooma for 40 months - 3.25 years - to break even. That's a pretty long ROI for a service that's getting cheaper by the day. Of course, I'm not factoring the long distance savings, which will probably be the big attraction. But I'm not so sure about that. LD rates are so cheap now, that this may just be an incremental savings.

Heard enough? I think I've said enough for now. Bottom line - Ooma works, and I think it's a well designed product. That's the easy part in my mind. Getting this to market and convincing people to spend this kind of money upfront from an unknown company will be the real challenge in my mind. Right now, Oooma is very Voice 1.0 - maybe Voice 1.5 with the Lounge. But there's nothing new for the telephone experience. I'm told that enhanced features are coming, but we don't have them now. Well, I just don't know if replicating what we already have will be enough to make this work in a heavily commoditized space. Ooma has created a big splash, but it's expensive to keep the buzz going until the market discovers them. The product is good - no doubt about it - but I don't know if that will be enough to see them through. We'll find out soon enough.

Want to talk more about it? Hey - call me, and experience Ooma for yourself. I'm not about to broadcast my Ooma number to the blogosphere, so drop me a line and I'll give you a ring!

Want to see it? Here you go...

Nice packaging...


Ooma Hub, with the Scout parked on top...


Here's what the Hub looks like when both lines are engaged. The red lights show that both lines are engaged - on separate calls - neat!


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