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Yoomba Introduces Free Internet Voice Calling Routed Via E-Mail

The software allows people to call or instant message anyone with an e-mail address.

Yoomba, an online telephony startup, plans on Thursday to introduce a new peer-to-peer communication platform that brings free voice-over-IP telephony and instant messaging to anyone with an e-mail address.

Yoomba aims to eliminate the balkanization that prevents Internet telephony services and IM services from interoperating.

The beta launch falls somewhat short of that goal: Yoomba's software requires Microsoft Windows 2000 or XP, though Elad Hemar, co-founder and CEO of Yoomba, said Linux and Mac OS X eventually will be supported. Firefox is only partially supported at the moment.

Another Internet startup called Meebo is doing something vaguely similar by unifying incompatible IM networks, but Hemar said that his company is pursuing a broader goal: reinventing online communication with the user at the center. "Interoperability is putting a very small bandage on a very big problem," he said.

Indeed, connecting balkanized services only affects users of those specific services; it doesn't eliminate balkanization altogether. Yoomba's system aspires to be as inclusive as the e-mail system.

Yoomba relies on viral marketing to spread its communications software. Users can call or IM anyone with an e-mail address. But recipients who haven't yet installed Yoomba's software will receive an e-mail with a link that initiates the software's installation.

The setup process is surprisingly easy, so much so that even reluctant users of computers will have no trouble with the installation. The software creates a communication window that lists contacts automatically imported from Outlook and major Web-based e-mail services (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo Mail). Thereafter, contacts can be sent IMs or called at the click of a button. (Successful calling requires that the computers of both callers have speakers that aren't muted and active microphones.)

Yoomba also installs buttons to initiate IM sessions and calls within contact lists in Outlook and in Web-based e-mail services. Whether any legal issues arise from Yoomba's insertion of buttons into a third-party Web service remains to be seen, but since Yoomba's viral spread is authorized by the user, there may be nothing Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo can do to prevent a Yoomba infestation. The end result is that Yoomba users will find their contact lists suddenly support one-click IM and voice calls.

Yoomba's platform was built using the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and Real-time Transfer Protocol (RTP). Hemar said the company decided to use SIP because it was an open protocol. "In the future we may want to integrate into IP phones and into the hardware," he said.

At some point, Yoomba plans to move beyond computer-to-computer telephony and connect to mobile phones and landlines, according to Hemar.

Yoomba is free at the moment. Eventually, it will include advertising. "We won't have advertising in the beta version," said Hemar. "We won't have any advertising until we are presenting a new value to the users. And I can assure you it's not going to be a rotating ad like AOL has. ... We'll announce it when it's ready."

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