Our nonprofit Storychasers has hired a part-time administrative assistant, and we’re hunting for options now to replace the Skype online phone number we’ve used in the past which has forwarded to my phone. A Skype Out number costs $18 per month or $60 per year currently. Ever since Apple pulled the plug on all Google Voice applications for the iPhone last summer, I’ve wondered what product AT&T (via Apple) was going to try and steer potential customers to as an alternative to Google Voice. Today in researching phone options for Storychasers I learned one possible answer to this question: AT&T Virtual Receptionist.

AT&T Virtual Receptionist

iPhone Virtual Receptionist - Business Phone Service by RingCentral

The service looks pretty good. It provides a toll-free (888) number for your organization, and like Google Voice it functions as an intermediary service for phone calls. When you want to dial using your virtual number, like Google Voice you dial from within the application and you are called BACK by the system. Then your call goes through. People you call see your “AT&T Virtual Receptionist” phone number on their caller ID instead of your personal iPhone number. Also like Google Voice, you can list multiple phone numbers that you want your “virtual number” to forward to. You can list up to three numbers. You can access your virtual voicemail online, but unlike Google Voice I don’t think this AT&T service provides voicemail transcription to text. When you receive a call, a recorded message from your “AT&T Virtual Receptionist” plays and asks if you want to take the call, send to voicemail, etc. This way you (or any designee who receives a phone call to your number) knows up front they are receiving an official organizational phone call, and not a personal call.

Of course the big kicker here is price. Google Voice is free to use, but it requires that you jailbreak your iPhone to use it. AT&T Virtual Receptionist can provide you with 60 “free minutes” per month, but there is not a “per minute” overage charge if you exceed 60 minutes. If you exceed 60 minutes, you have to go on “a plan” which starts at $5 for 100 minutes. The next step up is $14.99 per month for 500 minutes. Those fine print details are addressed in the service’s online FAQs.

iPhone Virtual Receptionist Plans by RingCentral - The reason Apple killed Google Voice for the iPhone?

With both Google Voice and AT&T Virtual Receptionist, every minute you talk counts as cell minutes on your existing phone data plan. AT&T is sort of double billing here with this service: You’ll be charged for cell minutes used on your data plan when you make a call using the “AT&T Virtual Receptionist” service, AND your AT&T Virtual Receptionist account will be charged minutes. So you end up paying more. With Google Voice, you’re just charged for cell phone minutes you use with your provider on your existing plan, there is not an “extra” charge for using Google Voice. Google Voice can provide you with a local phone number for most dialing areas, but unlike “AT&T Virtual Receptionist” it can’t (at present as far as I know) provide you with a toll-free number.

The main benefits I see to the AT&T Virtual Receptionist service over Google Voice is that you don’t need to jailbeak your phone to use it, and it provides a toll-free number for others to use who call. Even with the release of Black Rain as an alternative to the iPhone Dev Team’s jailbreak software, which Sarah Perez highlighted in October 2009 for Read Write Web, the iPhone jailbreaking process is reportedly still tricky and not for the faint of heart. That’s precisely what AT&T continues to bank on, I’d wager, in allegedly forcing Apple’s hand to keep Google Voice applications out of iTunes and off the formally sanctioned / approved iPhone applications list.

I’m not positive what we’re going to do with our available phone options for Storychasers, but it seems likely we may go with the AT&T Virtual Receptionist service. According to Yappler the iPhone app for AT&T Virtual Receptionist become available in October 2009.

I wish Apple was able to permit / allow Google Voice in iTunes for the iPhone. If it was available without a jailbreak, I’m sure we’d go with Google Voice instead based on the cost savings and transcription to text features which it provides.

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  • http://ryancollins.org/wp/ Ryan Collins

    There is nothing stopping you from using Google Voice on the iPhone. Google Voice can be used through your normal SMS, voice calls, or their mobile web site. I use it with my Windows Mobile phone (no AT&T service here).

    I store all my contacts in GMail and sync through exchange to my phone, so all my contacts are already in Google Voice. It really is strange that Apple isn’t letting the Google Voice app through because there is nothing you can do with it that you can’t already do.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Ryan: Without the Google Voice application running on an iPhone or other phone, how do you make phone calls through their service? When I’ve seen others using the jailbroken Google Voice application on an iPhone, they dialed the number IN the Google Voices application. Then the system dialed their iPhone back and connected the call.

    I don’t understand how you could use Google Voice on an iPhone without having the app. Certainly you can place outgoing “regular” phone calls to other GV numbers and users, but to use your own GV number and service I’m pretty sure you have to use the app.

    Please clarify this for me. Thanks.

  • http://ryancollins.org/wp/ Ryan Collins

    Go to http://google.com/voice/m in Safari on the iPhone and you can call someone from your Google Voice number. I think there is also a way to call your Google Voice number and make a call, but I’m not sure.

    With SMS, after you’ve texted someone once and they reply, they’ll have a 406-xxx-xxxx number. If you add that to your contacts, you can then text them through google voice with your regular SMS app. I don’t know if calling work the same way though, I’ve always used the website to call.

    It’s cumbersome compared to a native app, but it does work.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Wow! I had no idea that was possible. Thanks for sharing this!!! I just gave it a try and it worked great, both making an outbound call from the mobile site, and receiving an inbound call. The inbound call played a recording first, indicating who the call was from, and giving the option to either take the call or send it to voicemail. Excellent.

    I guess the only comparative advantage to the AT&T option is that the phone number would be toll free. That seems like a minor issue these days, however, with long distance calls being free when made with a cell phone. This functionality makes Google Voice on the iPhone look realistic and doable, since a jailbreak is not required.

    Now I just need to track down another Google Voice invite for our Storychasers email account. If you (or someone else) happens to have one, please send it to storychasers [at] gmail [dot] com.

    THANKS!

  • http://www.studystack.com John Weidner

    You forgot to mention the other way to use Google Voice for free without having to jail break your phone. Buy an Android phone instead of an iPhone. If you use Google products like GMail, Contacts, and Maps, they all work better on an Android phone. I’ve used an iPhone, T-Mobile myTouch, and the Google Nexus One, and the Nexus One is my favorite.

    The Android open development environment is awesome too. A developer of a flashcard app (a student from Poland) contacted me about integrating his app with my StudyStack site. In a few days he had the integration complete and available on the Android Marketplace. I’ve worked with developers of iPhone apps that took over a month to get Apple to approve them.

  • Brian

    Too bad this is no longer free.  New customers are forced to upgrade to AT&T Office@Hand which is a paid service starting at $32/month.  That’s a long way from FREE.   BOO AT&T/Ring Central!!

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