Wednesday, August 20, 2008

truphone: Killer iPhone app for international travel

Two days after the iPhone 2.0 software and the iTunes app store were released, I went on a family trip to Europe. So of course, in the days prior to my trip, I frantically installed, then reinstalled, the 2.0 software. This would make my phone much more useful during my trip, I reasoned. Well, it turns out I was right, and the main reason for that was the truphone application.

Truphone is a VOIP application, with one version running on Nokia phones and one iPhone version. The iPhone version appears as a separate application on the iPhone, providing buttons at the bottom of the display that provide access to your contacts, a keypad, a truphone web page for buying account credit, a list of recent calls, and a list of favorites (which, unfortunately, are specific to truphone and not copied from the Phone app). The application is exceedingly simple in operation:

  1. Sign up for an account and buy credit (when I signed up, they gave $8 credit for free; now they give $1 credit).
  2. Be someplace that has wifi that you can access.
  3. Make a call to one of your contacts, or dial on the keypad. These are calls to regular phones (landlines or mobiles), not to other other iPhones running truphone -- it's like SkypeOut.
  4. Pay $0.06/minute (now they've got packages that provide $0.015/minute to the US and Canada).

Perhaps paradoxically, this simplicity has caused some confusion among the commenters on the iTunes store. Part of this is truphone's fault, as they don't distinguish well in their online documentation between the Nokia and iPhone features. The Nokia app includes free truphone-to-truphone calling, SMS, etc. -- much more like a full Skype implementation. It also appears to integrate into the Nokia calling software, so that the phone automatically switches from regular cell to VOIP, depending on circumstances. The iPhone application is simpler, only including calls to regular phones and requiring you to consciously select wifi calling (by running the truphone app, rather than the Phone app).

I actually prefer the iPhone implementation. At this point, truphone doesn't have much market penetration, and besides I don't know that many people I might call who have iPhones or Nokia N95s. So being able to call other truphone users wouldn't have been useful during my trip (with one small exception: you know who you are). More importantly, I wanted to be 100% certain that I was making a VOIP call, and not a $2 or more per minute cell call. I didn't want my phone switching to regular cell calling because of a software glitch or because of some problem connecting to a hotel's wifi network. The fact that I was running the truphone application, not the Phone application, and that truphone only works with wifi, was very reassuring.

I spent at least a couple hours calling various phones here in the Seattle area, Philadelphia, south Florida, and China, from hotels in Prague, Venice, and Rome. Generally, call quality was quite good, equal to the best we've experienced using Skype, with the only issues being a weak signal in one hotel that required me to sit in a particular chair in the lobby that happened to be in a good spot. Also, I tried at one point to add credit to my account using my MacBook, but the truphone web site was abysmally slow; I connected to the mobile version of their add credit page and the transaction went off without a hitch. And it was great to be able to call relatives to let them know we arrived safely and keep them updated on our wanderings without having to deal with phone cards or similar unfamiliar contact methods.

So, is truphone useful for calls within the US? Probably not, unless you've somehow gotten yourself a plan with very few minutes and very high costs for additional minute usage. But, if you need to travel internationally, then calls using truphone are approximately 1/30 the cost of AT&T calls. You could easily pay for the purchase cost of an iPhone 3G with the savings from one international trip.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article - Thanks!