When Google Voice was first introduced in 2009, many weren’t sure what to make of it. I, and others I’m sure, saw something exciting. Instead of using those ridiculous “free texting” apps for my iPhone, why not get a number with Google Voice and start using the service for all SMS? It worked perfectly, and didn’t cost me a penny.
Things have changed since the original days of Google Voice, though. Getting a personal phone number at the service has become harder, even though it’s still free, because so many people are using it. There’s also the fact that the free calling feature is scheduled to leave at the end of this year, which may drive away some users. What about an alternative? CallingVault looked nice back in May when it first started accepting beta invitations, and the service has finally granted me entrance. It’s only free while in beta, but looks promising enough to be worth switching to. Shall we take a look?
This service is currently not available outside the United States. Also, since it’s only in beta, there is no final score.
Setting Things Up
Getting an account at CallingVault is easy because the beta is public. Mind you, there will be bugs along the way, but the developers are working hard to keep them out of sight. All you have to do to sign up is go to the register page, put in your first and last name, email address, and state of residence, and click Next. Instead of a captcha for verification, you’ll be sent an email that contains a temporary password. Copy it to your clipboard and paste it in the applicable field, then type in a password of your own and choose your area code.
Sadly, you’ll not be allowed to choose a number of your liking. All numbers are random due to the service’s mantra: take back your privacy. If you’re going to do that, why do you need a number that looks nice? The area code is good enough, right? Also, in case you were wondering, number porting is currently not supported because of the cost.
Once you’ve finished the configuration process — which is literally one step — you’ll be greeted with a welcome screen that shows your number in bold and gives you a quick introduction to the service. There was one thing the developers left out of the setup though: configuring your current mobile phone. It’s definitely nice that they aren’t pushy about things, but this should be somewhere in the setup process. You can always easily add your number later by going to the Settings menu, typing it in at the bottom, and clicking Send Code. Then check your phone and type the confirmation code to proceed.
Texting is Easy, But Limited for Now
To send someone a text message, just click the New Text button in the top left. It’s definitely easy, and if you have any contacts, just start typing their name an press enter when you have the right person selected. You can then type your message to that person in the field below and, when finished, click Send. The simplicity of that is something to appreciate, but there’s one feature left out: character count.
Since CallingVault doesn’t show how many characters you have left, or used so far, there’s no way to tell whether the message will be monstrous on the receiver’s side. You could just go by how many characters you think you’ve typed, but if you want to actually be accurate about things, an indicator helps. Google Voice has a nice one that counts down from 160 and then transitions into 2.160 (followed by a “Really?” when you go over that), meaning that you’ll be sending two messages. This service could implement something similar — even just a plain old warning sign.
While we’re on the topic of numbers, you’ll find some in CallingVault that might turn you off to the whole idea of using it. There are still text messaging plans that have limits on them — surprisingly — and since you probably want to switch to this because you pay an undesirable monthly fee, the fact that theres a 250-text limit might be disappointing. Then there’s the minutes limit, which is only 120. So, obviously, if you’re thinking of using this as your main SMS-sending service, it may be best to think again.
Now, both these limits may sound reasonable for monthly users. However, they are for all beta users until the beta ends, meaning that you shouldn’t use things too heavily. A member of the development team did say that ”it’s not unheard of for [them] to give a bit extra to heavy users”, so don’t worry too much and be sure to email them if there’s a problem. Because this is a small business and not Google, the service will not be free upon launch. The developers promised the final price will be a reasonable annual fee, and with the current limits lifted.
One Recipient Only
The most disappointing thing about CallingVault’s SMS functionality is its lack of multi-recipient messaging. Maybe the days of group messaging are gone for some people, but there are those who enjoy sending messages to a few friends to invite them to a party — you know, instead of using Facebook. It’s not like you’re going to be sending that many text messages, but what if you wanted to? Google Voice allows you to dispatch words to up to five recipients. That’s a threat.
Block People, Forward Calls
The main purpose of CallingVault is to keep your number safe. Instead of telling people “call me at this number” and then pulling out your phone to make sure they texted the right one, give them your truly private number. That way, when they call you, it doesn’t automatically forward to your phone. Instead, they get your CallingVault voicemail. If, in the end, you want to forward some calls to your mobile phone, that’s easy.
Head over to Settings and set up your phone number. Then go to a contact entry, click Edit, and check the Call Forwarding box. With that done, you will receive calls from all the people who have call forwarding enabled on their contact pages.
Strangely, there’s no text message forwarding feature. You can receive calls on your mobile phone, but your text messages will have to wait for the mobile app. This is a bit of a letdown and the feature is one that should be included with any SMS service like CallingVault. More room for improvement, of course.
No Way to Import Contacts
Every service having its own contact organiser comes with a price: you have to set up everything again. Most of the time that entails exporting your current contacts list as a CSV file and then going to the new service to import them. In the case of CallingVault, however, this is not the case. There is currently no other way of adding a contact then to simply, well, add it. You have to manually type the first and last name, though both aren’t required, followed by the phone number and then click Add to Contacts. Doing this for every person in your address book can get tedious.
Instead of the redundant tap-tap-tap process that CallingVault currently has, it could benefit from one like most services use: social networking integration. With that, you authorise it to use our Facebook account. It can then pull all the names and numbers into your account in a breeze. For the people who don’t prefer this technique, the developers could always add the traditional import-by-upload functionality.
Good Design, and a Mobile App?
CallingVault’s near-monochrome user interface may seem dull to some, but it’s better than Google Voice’s plain white one. Everything is easy to understand and navigate, and the transitions make it feel like it’s a real app and not just something in the browser. This is perfect for Mac users who have Fluid. If you’re having trouble with something, try clicking the ? button in the top right for some guidance. This should actually appear when you first set things up, but a tutorial or introduction of sorts has been neglected. Maybe it’ll show its face in a future release.
While I’m on the topic of the Web app, you’re probably wondering whether there is a mobile one available so you can truly use this as an alternative to your SMS plan. There is a mobile version of the Web app available right now and it works well. Meanwhile, the developers do have plans to bring native mobile apps to major platforms “hopefully very soon”. Right now, the team is working hard on keeping the beta up-to-date with their latest ideas and chasing away the bugs. Once all that’s been taken care of, they’ll be releasing some mobile companion apps.
A Focus on Privacy — With Good Timing
Most people on the Internet don’t care about privacy, mainly because they don’t think about it. That makes sense: it is an awfully tiring subject. However, if you are one of those people who does care about privacy, this app may very well be your way out of Google Voice. The famous search engine has been under a lot of flak from the media (there’s even a Wikipedia article about it) and is no longer trusted by many people. This gives services like CallingVault a large advantage.
Even though it currently doesn’t have encryption on its Web site, the service has to potential to be better than Google Voice. The user interface is nice, it’s user-friendly (for the most part), it’s only in its starting stages, and the developers have plans for the future, which is good to see. (Google rarely does anything with its Voice project. At least this team doesn’t have a lot of tasks at hand and can concentrate on making this a stellar product.)
The only thing that’s really holding back CallingVault right now is the lack of international availability. Without a global reach, it can’t compete with some of the other services out there. Of course, the developers do have plans to bring it to other countries in the future. “We absolutely have plans to expand beyond the US once we launch! We’re already in talks to do that, but the timeframe will depend on customer adoption here”, one said. This is great to hear and once international support rolls out, the app will have a much better standing against the competition.
Overall, this service is off to a great start — and it’s only in beta. There will be a lot more to come in the future and with the solid motives of the team CallingVault currently has, all the plans should come to pass very soon. This is the kind of an app that I’d add to my watch-list, just to see where things go from here.