Mac CTI (Computer Telephone Integration)

There’s a quiet revolution underway as the old 4 kHz narrowband phone system is being disrupted by a combination of cell phones and Internet phones with advanced features and HD Voice. Market research from 2010 suggests that approximately one third of installed phone lines in the United States were using VoIP while two thirds still used the legacy PSTN. These numbers are expected to flip over the next 5 years so that by 2015 approximately two thirds of all installed phone lines in the US will be VoIP.

With hundreds of proprietary digital phones and PBX systems, Windows TAPI (Telephone Application Programming Interface) has traditionally dominated CTI by providing a common API that phone and PBX vendors could write to. In response, European standards organizations developed CSTA (Computer-Supported Telecommunications Applications) as a model for standardizing the computer interface to PBX systems. CSTA has also been extended to SIP phones in the form of uaCSTA (User Agent CSTA), but US adoption has been slow. Another response to the complexity of proprietary phone systems is the emergence of Asterisk, a powerful, free, open source PBX that works with phones from several major manufacturers. No other PBX works with as wide a selection of phones, and this has driven the adoption of SIP based VoIP as the industry standard.

By the 1990s, the PC was king. More software leading to ever more investment made it very difficult for any platform that wasn’t a PC to compete on features and price. As the global Internet emerged, there was leverage in making the phone just another application that ran on the PC. Multiple soft-phones and audio/video communication platforms were born by solving the problem of streaming high quality audio/video across the Internet to PCs (like Skype, iChat AV, and Magic Jack). Telepresence was marketed as a way to reduce the cost of business travel. Some 10 years later, Apple transformed the cell phone industry by making the phone just another app that ran on a powerful mobile computer with a breakthrough user interface.

The Internet with its open standards and vastly superior content has loosened the grip of the PC. One effect has been the shift toward cloud computing. Telephone answering machines and PBX have become applications that run on the server. It is no longer necessary for small business owners to deal with the complexity and expense of managing their own phone system. Companies like and have emerged to provide business PBX phone service via the Internet for a low monthly fee.

While the iPhone is setting the standard for mobile, there’s still a need for simple, reliable, and cost effective home and office phones. Standard SIP based VoIP phones have emerged to fill this need. While soft-phones are popular for some applications (especially mobile), PCs are bulky, power hungry, and more complex to manage compared to dedicated (modular) phones.

Phone Amego is positioned to serve this market as follows:

1. Despite all the changes in telephone technology, people still need to make and receive phone calls while juggling information from multiple sources.

2. Many people will use more than one kind of phone during an extended transition period (i.e. cell phone, SIP phone, Skype, landline, etc). Modular (RJ-11) telephone jacks are being replaced by SIP and HTTP over Ethernet. Standard Definition narrowband voice is going the way of dial-up networking.

3. Phone Amego allows you to leverage the power of CTI with the simplicity of modular phones (including cell phones and soft-phones). Ironically, many soft-phones are weak at supporting CTI under the assumption that CTI is the job of the call manager or PBX, but the trend is going the other way. Many small businesses no longer need or want their own PBX, but they still want CTI.

Phone Amego’s integration with web based services, SIP phones, soft-phones, iPhone, iOS, landlines, and support for native CRM offers ground breaking integration that wasn’t possible only a few years ago. As more businesses adopt iOS and consider using Macs, Phone Amego is positioned to become popular with SOHO users. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to wider adoption is breaking through the noise of competing alternatives so that small office users can identify compelling solutions. See

Choosing a SIP Phone for Mac CTI
Choosing a VoIP Service Provider for Mac CTI
US Telecom Industry from 2010 to 2015

Q: What about CTI in the cloud?

A: The same factors that are pushing PBX service to the cloud have inspired some companies to offer CTI in the cloud. for example offers PBX+ which includes CTI features. As the developer of Phone Amego, I was intrigued to see the “Call Widget” which allows you to see who’s calling, transfer calls between employees, leave notes for calls, and integrate with web based CRM systems like SalesForce starts at $99 per month (bundled with 3000 minutes or higher).

Phone Amego combined with offers similar capability but with two key advantages:

(1) Consumer friendly pricing. Phone Amego is $30/seat (one time) or $60 for up to 5 users within a single family household. is competitive with Vonage.

(2) Phone Amego works with native applications Mac users are already familiar with including Apple’s Address Book, iCal, and Mail (which integrate easily with iPhone and iPad). The biggest cost of moving to a CRM is time spent learning a new system and entering your data. Native apps lower the barrier to entry.

The market is still deciding where software-as-a-service makes the most sense. Google is pushing an Apps in the cloud model (Google Apps), whereas Apple is pushing a native Apps with data in the cloud model (iCloud).

I can’t claim there’s one right answer for everyone, but I’m partial to the native Apps approach. Native apps offer a richer experience and deeper integration as illustrated by the examples below:

(1) Phone Amego’s click-to-dial feature isn’t limited to your on-line address book. You can click-to-dial almost any number that appears on your screen and can also send touch-tones to access other services.

(2) Outgoing call setup is faster because you can dial directly from your phone instead of ringing your phone first, and then ringing the remote party.

(3) Phone Amego’s caller ID isn’t limited to reverse lookup or opening a CRM page. It integrates with native apps including iCal and Daylite. Other options include speak caller ID, growl notification, multi-line Caller ID, and native scripting.

When the iPhone first appeared, Apple proposed Web Apps as the API for 3rd party developers because the native SDK wasn’t ready. Developers recognized immediately this would relegate them to second class status and complained loudly they wanted a native SDK. I would argue the CTI user experience is intimate enough to give native apps an advantage.

In contrast, the PBX user experience has always been distributed between the users phone and PBX equipment in a wiring closet. Moving the PBX equipment out of the closet and into the cloud offers greater flexibility to enhance the user experience.

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Choosing a VoIP Service Provider for Mac CTI

As the developer of Phone Amego, I’ve had the opportunity to use several providers with different equipment so I’d like to share some of that experience. Depending on what’s most important to you, you may need to shop around a little. My priorities are:

(1) Reliability, call quality, ease of use, and helpful support.
(2) Flexibility to support forward looking features like HD voice and internet only calls.
(3) Easy to try without a long term commitment.
(4) Support for standard IP phones and adaptors.
(5) Does not lock phones in a way that prevents using CTI.
(6) Reasonable rate plans based on features I’ll use. I don’t need unlimited calling to 50 countries, but I’m happy to pay a little more for much better service.

It’s worth mentioning that most successful VoIP service providers fall into one of two categories based on their business model:

(1) Full service providers focussed on simplifying the VoIP experience (for business or home use). These providers offer a choice of standard equipment with prices starting around $15 per month (before taxes), or $20-25/mo for unlimited nationwide long distance (on a single line). The best are fanatical about great customer service.

(2) Low cost providers that allow you to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and Pay As You Go (PAYG). The best offer reliable high quality calls, good information, and responsive support by Email. Prices start around 1.5 to 2 cents per minute before taxes ($5/month for 911 service and mandated fees).

There are many providers, but some have not put as much thought into their business model to deliver consistent high quality calls and customer service. Finally, choosing a provider with servers closer to your general area is helpful to reduce latency (west coast versus east coast for example).

My favorite phone system provider is . The company specializes in offering PBX features (virtual extensions, transfers, call groups, conferencing, voice mail, recording, etc…) to small businesses and even home users. The website is remarkable for making advanced features easy to understand and configure. You can literally build your own phone system without buying a PBX or hiring an expert. offers full provisioning for Polycom and Cisco phones. Support for Aastra phones is currently in beta test. They allow other SIP devices and soft-phones on a self support basis and I was able to use my Yealink phone without difficulty. To use a Polycom phone after signing up, you would set the server type to “HTTPS” and set the server to be: . Then just restart your phone and they take care of rest. They don’t lock your phone so you can still configure it for CTI. They offer 24×7 US based customer support. When I contacted them about using a Yealink phone, they understood what I wanted and were very helpful. Getting this kind of customer care suggests they really understand their business. There are plenty of companies that cater to corporate clients, but few who really understand home office or micro business users.

My only reservation with is price if you don’t need a full business phone system.

If you want to try and use the link above to signup, I get a small agent credit (thank you). This is the kind of office phone system you might have dreamed of at consumer friendly prices (similar to Vonage). Great for a home office or remote telecommuters. [East coast]

If you just want an endpoint for calls rather than a phone system, one of my favorites is They offer some of the best wholesale pricing (1.25 cents per minute) and flexible sub-accounts which make it easy to setup multiple phones. Each phone can have it’s own internal extension while appearing as a single line to the outside. This scheme makes transferring calls and sharing voice mail easy. They also offer explicit caller ID name support (0.8 cents per lookup) with good results. Their web portal is well designed and loaded with examples that explain how to configure most IP phones and adaptors. Another strength is they have servers in several locations covering the USA and Canada along with one in London for European customers.

My reservations with are:

– They don’t support HD voice at this time;
– To use 7-digit dialing, you’ll need to configure this on your phone or adaptor (but they provide some examples).


Another provider I like is CallCentric. Here’s why:

CallCentric is a major ISP co-located with a major telephone facility. This combination of internet bandwidth, low cost, and peering agreements makes for exceptionally robust and affordable service. Internet-to-Internet calls are free, you only pay for access to the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network).

CallCentric supports HD voice, inbound fax service, flexible call treatments, and has good documentation. Support is responsive but limited to a trouble ticket system and Email. You can create as many accounts as you need (one per SIP phone) and begin using the service right away at no charge for calls between CallCentric subscribers or other services that support SIP URIs (Internet phone numbers). Calls through the PSTN must be funded, but the rates are reasonable.

My reservations with CallCentric are:
– They don’t provide built-in support for call transfers;
– You have to setup an account for each VoIP phone or adaptor;
– To use 7-digit dialing, you’ll need to configure this on your phone or adaptor.

CallCentric is easy to try, and just as easy to cancel if it doesn’t work well for you. If you would like to try CallCentric and use the link above, I get a small “agent” credit (thank you). [East coast]

Most IP phones have CTI features built-in, but you will need an administrator password to configure them. If your service provider locks you out of your phone, that’s a problem. Both and CallCentric work well with CTI. With other providers, you may want to inquire first.

Note to Service Providers: A better answer for providers who want to retain control over device provisioning is to provide a web portal so that the user can input their selections to configure the application features on their IP phone. This allows users to access the powerful CTI features of their phone while allowing the service provider to retain control over device provisioning to simplify setup and support.

To use any of these services, you must already have high speed Internet and be prepared to buy and configure one or more SIP phones as needed. This is not difficult to do, but involves plugging the phone into your Ethernet LAN, pressing a menu key to find the IP address, connecting to the phone with your web browser, and entering a few parameters from your VoIP service provider.

Call Quality
Both and CallCentric are fully onboard with HD voice and offer outstanding call quality. offers a tool to evaluate your network for VoIP. It helps if your Internet router support QoS (Quality of Service) to prioritize real time audio and video traffic. I’ve had no trouble using Apple’s AirPort Extreme as my primary Internet router. If you’re serious about supporting an office full of VoIP phones (or video conferencing), consider getting a second Internet connection to separate voice and data.

Calls on sounded as good or better than Vonage, but you won’t get the surprising range you hear with HD voice.

I wanted to mention Vonage because they do a good job of making VoIP simple for consumers. They mostly support their own VoIP adaptors which are pre-configured and easy to use. The call quality is generally good, but your mileage may vary. One of our phones worked great, while the other had occasional issues. Compared to a traditional phone or cable company, the cost is about half for basic service, and far less for international calls. The disadvantage with Vonage is they don’t support business IP phones with advanced features and CTI (beyond their own limited click-to-dial service). [West coast]


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Choosing a SIP phone for Mac CTI

As the developer of Phone Amego, I’ve had the opportunity to use several SIP phones in order to support them in Phone Amego. Ironically, many advanced phones are not very good at CTI, so I’d like to describe some of my own experience here. For casual home use, a VoIP telephone adaptor and cordless phone may be all that’s needed. For professional or office use, SIP phones offer better sound and advanced features to make handling calls easier and more efficient.

Any phone call that passes through the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) or an analog phone is limited to narrowband 4 KHz audio. To take full advantage of the Internet phone revolution, a dedicated SIP phone or soft-phone with HD voice is desirable. Many SIP phones include advanced speaker phones with built-in echo cancellation and noise reduction. The result is more like sitting in the same room as the person you are talking to (even if its a conference call with several participants).

In my experience, the leading SIP phone makers for SOHO users are Cisco, Polycom, Yealink, Aastra, and Snom. Each have strengths, but my favorites so far are Polycom and Yealink. Notice your ITSP (Internet Telephone Service Provider) may support some phones and not others, so that’s a possible consideration.

Polycom has a well established reputation for the best sound quality, especially for multi-party conference calls. Their compatibility with VoIP services and support for CTI is excellent (probably the most widely supported phone available). Any of the Polycom Soundpoint IP phones should work well with Phone Amego. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the speakerphone on my Polycom IP320. It sounds great and callers can hear me easily. These are terrific phones, but more expensive as you get into models with larger displays. A small nit is that the phone needs to restart after most parameter changes and seems happiest when using a boot server (consider an ITSP like that provides a Polycom boot server).

Yealink is a rising star offering advanced features (HD Voice, IPv6, and intuitive UI) at entry level prices. The user interface is clean and way ahead of most. The SIP-T22P makes a very nice office phone and is available for around $80. Support for CTI is simple and straight forward. Yealink phones are my favorite for value and ease-of-use. The display on the SIP-T20P is too limiting so it’s worth the extra $20 to get the SIP-T22P or higher. As a relative newcomer, Yealink phones are not as widely supported, but growing in popularity.

Cisco makes many phones, but the SPA-xxx series work similarly to their VoIP telephone adapters which are compatible with Phone Amego. Cisco is more focussed on their corporate customers running Cisco Call Manager, so support for open source Asterisk has not always been as good. These phones do not support dialing directly via Ethernet.

Aastra phones (67xx series) are often cited as one of the best phones for Asterisk with powerful multi-line support and application features. My personal experience is limited to the Aastra 9133i which does not support dialing directly. A somewhat awkward feature is that once you specify a notification URL to work with a computer for CTI, the phone will complain with a “Page Load Error” if the computer is turned off or not available. Lots to like, but not my favorite for CTI.

Snom phones work well with Phone Amego but the entry level models have limited displays. I haven’t fully explored their strong support for open standards including uaCSTA (user agent CSTA – an industry standard for CTI).

Avaya phones are popular in corporate call centers and can trace their heritage back to Lucent Technologies and the old Bell Labs. With a large portfolio of proprietary phone products, I’m not sure how well they work with open standards including SIP based VoIP services.

If there’s a great SIP phone I’ve overlooked, or you have other experience to share, I welcome your comments.

Q: I am really not seeing a lot of value in all this telelphony hardware, since if software can be used for the same thing, I already have the devices, iPhones, iPad, Mac, PC, Apple TV, etc.

A: I used to feel the same way. The devices we have are really good and more than capable of acting as a phone with the right software. Why spend more time and money on dedicated telephony hardware?  It’s a good question.

The other side is of this argument is that all modern phones are software. Why do you care what hardware the software runs on? What matters is the user experience. In my role, users kept asking me to add support for Polycom IP phones, so I bought one on eBay to try it. I was stunned at how good it sounds. Way better than any soft phone I’ve used. How is that possible?

Dedicated DSP hardware that has been carefully tweaked to optimize voice quality and clarity along with careful attention to audio system design in the handset and speaker. The result is a phone that sounds and works better, plus you get powerful CTI features built-in. In contrast, soft-phones are often poor at CTI.

By using dedicated hardware, you gain stability (from upgrades and other ill behaved software), reliability, better sound, a better user experience, support from a dedicated supplier, lower cost in some cases (cell phone plans are expensive), and better CTI (for business applications).

Softphones and video conferencing on mobile devices are clearly going to be huge, but they still involve trade-offs. The speaker on an iPad isn’t as good as a high quality conference phone, nor does it offer the same advanced features and ease of use.


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Choosing a VoIP telephone adaptor (ATA)

As the developer of Phone Amego, I’ve had the opportunity to use several VoIP adaptors and SIP phones in order to support them in Phone Amego. Ironically, many advanced phones are not very good at CTI, so I’d like to describe some of my own experience here.

A first step for many is to connect their existing cordless analog phones to a VoIP service using an Analog Telephone Adaptor. By far the most popular VoIP adapter is the Cisco/Linksys/Sipura series (such as the PAP2T or SPA-2102) which has earned high marks for call quality, flexible configuration, and general reliability. While very capable, these are rather technical to configure.

More recently part of the original team behind these adaptors formed a new company (OBiHAI) to build next generation VoIP adaptors. Their first products are the OBi100 and OBi110 Voice Service Bridge and VoIP adaptor. These are remarkable products loaded with powerful features, but at the same time easy to configure using the OBiHAI web portal. For several of the most popular VoIP providers, it only takes a few clicks to enter your VoIP phone number and password and then let the OBiHAI web portal take care of “provisioning” your device. I’d like to highlight two key features of the OBi devices:

(1) They can be used as a kind of distributed PBX to create your own Internet phone system. If you have relatives oversees with high speed Internet, you can talk all you want at no charge by installing one of these at each location. Using the voice service bridge, you can place calls from any OBi device in your circle of trust. A relative in India could connect to your OBi110 in the US to take advantage of your unlimited nationwide long distance plan.

(2) They interface with Google Chat directly so you can place free calls using Google Voice from a normal telephone without any computer involved.

Phone Amego can work with either of these adaptors to provide on-screen caller ID and call logging, but there is no direct support for dialing at this time. If your VoIP service provider has a click-to-dial service, you may be able to dial using that.

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Understanding the OBiON App for iOS and the OBi110 Service Bridge

Phone Amego recently added support for the OBiHAI family of VoIP adaptors including the OBi110 and OBi100 which allow you make calls via Google Voice without a separate telephone service. This introduction walks through the process of configuring the OBi110 and OBiON app to illustrate what is possible.

The OBi110 service bridge is a deceptively powerful device capable of connecting and bridging Google Chat (XMPP), an SIP based VoIP provider, a regular phone line (PSTN), a locally attached analog phone, and other devices on the OBiTALK network including remote OBi adaptors and iOS devices running the OBiON application (available from the App Store).

To start, we’ll assume you just received an OBi110 from Amazon and would like to set it up.

(1) Create an OBiTALK account for yourself at
You will need to enter a valid Email address, a password of your choice, and your OBiTALK number which appears on the bottom of your OBi110 adaptor. The OBiTALK website will confirm your Email address and register your OBi device.

(2) Although it is possible to configure you OBi device using a locally connected web browser through the web configuration portal, the OBiTALK website provides an OBiTALK configuration portal that simplifies much of the configuration process. Login to the OBiTALK website and proceed to the configuration “Dashboard”.

(3) Select your device from the list of “OBi Endpoints” and confirm the basic device configuration. Most of the fields are already completed for you, so you may only need to adjust the time zone, give your OBi device a convenient display name to help you identify it, and assign an optional PIN to access the Auto Attendant.

(4) If you want to use your OBi110 to make Google Voice calls, move down to the Configure Voice Services section and click on Service Provider 1. From here you can select Google Voice, enter your login credentials, and press submit. Almost everything except creating your Google Voice account is done for you. You will need to place at least one Google Chat call using Gmail from a web browser to allow your OBi device to make outgoing Google Chat calls. I understand this is for legal reasons so you can acknowledge there is no emergency 911 service. Adding a VoIP service like CallCentric or is similarly easy.

(5) Your OBi110 adaptor allows you to select between two Internet Telephone Service Providers (SP1/SP2 selected by **1/**2), a regular telephone LINE (**8), and the OBiTALK network (**9). To make placing Google Voice calls easier, you can use the local web configuration portal to select a default service provider such as SP1 that is configured to use Google Voice. You can use ***1 from a connected phone to have the OBi110 adaptor announce its currently assigned IP address.

Now comes the fun part.

(6) Download the OBiON app to your iOS device. Launch the app and login using your OBiTALK account information. Notice your iOS device is assigned a 9-digit OBiTALK number. You’ll need this later.

(7) Back at the OBiTALK dashboard, “Softphone” should now appear in the list of OBiTALK endpoints. Select it, give it a name, and tell it to use your OBi110 device as its default OBi Voice Gateway.

(8) To make your OBi110 accept single stage dialing without going through the Auto Attendant from your iOS device, use the web configuration portal to set:

VoiceServices->AutoAttendant->OutboundCallroute =

(9) From the OBiON app on your iOS device, you can now dial 2*phoneNumber to place a call using the default service on your OBi adaptor (such as Google Voice). The “2*” prefix selects the OBi device whose OBi number is stored in speed dial position 2 (which should have been configured for you automatically). This call uses VoIP over WiFi (or 3G) to connect with your OBi110 where it is bridged to Google Voice. You can make this call from anywhere in the world, or allow others to make similar calls by adding them to your “Circle of Trust”.

Notice the call is duly logged and displayed by Phone Amego.

(10) When a call arrives at your OBi110, I understand you can have it ring up to 4 devices on the OBiTalk network if desired. Similar to the way Google Voice allows one number to ring all your phones.

I hope you have enjoyed this introduction and look forward to adding more support for the OBi110 in future versions of Phone Amego.

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The Case for VoIP

Voice over IP or the ability to make phone calls using your existing Internet connection continues to improve while offering some interesting trade-offs. The question for many telephone or cable subscribers is whether recent offerings are good enough to be worth the hassle.

The big win with VoIP is lower cost. Sending voice as data over a packet switched network like the Internet is simply more efficient than traditional phone systems that setup a dedicated circuit to carry both sides of the conversation even when no-one is talking. In addition to efficiency and low cost, VoIP uses digital signaling from end-to-end which offers the potential for much better voice quality. Finally, VoIP services generally come bundled with advanced features including caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, conferencing, voicemail, and more.

The potential drawbacks to be overcome are complicated setup, universal connectivity, and reliability. Can you really count on your VoIP phone in normal use, and if not, what will it cost you?

Choosing the best VoIP Option for Your Situation

If you are calling friends or family overseas who have access to high speed internet and a computer similar to yours, Skype or iChat work well and cost next to nothing. If you have trouble getting iChat or FaceTime to connect through your Internet Access router or firewall, it’s worth noting that Apple’s own AirPort Base Station is designed to work well with Apple’s solutions and can automatically configure any necessary port mappings.

Where things get more complicated is when you want to replace a conventional landline and long distance calling package. There are many options but they basically fall into three useful categories.

The first option I would consider is Google Voice which provides free nationwide long distance for U.S. residential customers and offers unified voicemail and other benefits I’ve described previously (Unified Voice, Text, and Visual Voicemail). The service is free and generally easy to begin using. If you often make or receive calls while sitting in front of your Mac, a program like Phone Amego offers some nice integration including on screen caller ID and click-to-dial.

The next easiest option is a complete VoIP service package like Vonage. Vonage will optionally ship you a pre-configured and easy to use VoIP adaptor and walk you through activating your service. Vonage works well for many users and they have begun offering more attractive monthly pricing plans as well as low risk trial periods. The best offer I’ve seen is $10/month (since I already had a used VDV-21VD adaptor I bought for $20).

The most flexible option is to buy your own VoIP telephone adaptor (like the OBiHAI Technology OBi110 for around $50) and then chose a provider that offers the best combination of price and service. I’ve had good experience with CallCentric and . You can get a free Direct Inward Dial (DID) number from that works with standard SIP phones or VoIP telephone adaptors.  By combining this with Google Voice for outbound dialing, you can effectively have nationwide phone service with no monthly charge. You must provide your own Internet connection and will need a cell phone to sign up.  The sipgate service is offered AS IS for single line residential use only. Detailed instructions are available from the service providers website, but it can take a little time and attention to get everything working (usually under 30 minutes). To take full advantage of such a service, a tool like Phone Amego is helpful because it combines a click-to-dial Google Voice client with on-screen Caller ID for Cisco/Linksys/Sipura and OBiHAI telephone adaptors.

My Own Experience

My own experience with VoIP is mixed. I’ve had a VoIP office phone for about five years now and have gone through several providers.  When the service works well, it’s a wonderful bargain and a pleasure to use, but things haven’t always gone smoothly.  Early systems had problems with call quality and this may still be an issue with slower ISPs. Setup may require a hobbiest level of interest, similar to setting up TCP/IP networking on your Mac.  Though not difficult, you will need to login to your VoIP telephone adaptor using your web browser, and plug various bits of information provided (like your login name, and proxy server) into the correct slots.  Finally, the service may not be 100%.  Sometimes calls get dropped or fail to go through.

In my own testing, Google Voice has been very reliable.  The call quality using a Linksys/Sipura telephone adaptor and Cox high speed internet has been excellent, noticeably better than a traditional landline.  Reliability varies depending on your VoIP service provider, but so far I’ve been pleased with my current providers including CallCentric and .  Sipgate makes a point of emphasizing that their service itself runs in the cloud on distributed servers which may avoid some of the problems I’ve had in the past.  Time will tell.

When I first got VoIP about 5 years ago, I tried to switch both my work phone and our home phone to the new service.  After a few months, my wife complained about the frustration of calls not getting through consistently, and we switched our home phone back to a local provider (Cox Digital phone service).  If you already have a cell phone and/or a home phone, VoIP is a nice way to add a second line at very low cost.  If you’re thinking of switching completely over to VoIP, plan to try it for a while and keep your options open.

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When Disruptive Innovations Collide

A “disruptive innovation” is an innovation that disrupts an existing market. As telephone service becomes an extension of the Internet, the number of ways to make calls has exploded. There are landlines, cell phones, and various forms of Voice over IP including Vonage, Skype, and iChat. Some of these have integrated text messaging and video. Some work primarily as phone services, while others connect between computers. While it may be tempting to enumerate the many options and their merits, the more Mac like answer is to focus on the user experience while minimizing distractions from the underlying technology. We want to communicate:

  • from anywhere
  • to anyone
  • using the best method and device for the task

And we want it to be at a reasonable cost, or even free using our existing Internet connection. In practice, most of us have many ways to communicate and we juggle various options to balance convenience, coverage, and cost. With this in mind, I’d like to use this Blog to explore some combinations I’ve found especially useful or interesting.

Unified Voice, Text, and Visual Voicemail

The Case for VoIP

A Better Way to Keep Track of your Calls

Ins and Outs of Calling via the Net

If you’ve found a solution you’re particularly happy with, I’d enjoy hearing about it (send Email to psichel “at” sustworks “dot” com).

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Unified Voice, Text, and Visual Voicemail

Many people today have more than one phone number and voice mailbox. You may have a cell phone, a home phone (landline), and an office or business phone. Just telling people where to reach you and checking your voice mail can be a hassle. While some people choose to live on their cell phone, a more elegant solution for many is Google Voice. If you are new to Google Voice, the idea is to have one number that rings all your phones (wherever you happen to be) instead of handing out different numbers for where you might be, and also have one place to check your voice mail.

When someone calls you on your Google Voice (GV) number, you can have it ring as many of your phones as you want and answer on whichever one is most convenient. If any of your phone numbers change, it’s easy to point Google Voice at your new number. If you prefer not to take the call immediately, GV will take a message and even transcribe it for you. Where this gets interesting is that you can have this transcription sent automatically to your cell phone (as an SMS), to a text or IM client on your iPad or desktop, or to your Email inbox. You don’t have to call in to check your voice mail unless you want to. If someone calls your cell number directly, you can still use Google Voice as your unified answering machine by forwarding your cell phone voice mail. Even most landlines can enable “conditional forwarding” to use Google Voice.

Instructions to use Google Voice as your voicemail when people call your cell phone number

On the Mac, I use Phone Amego to dial calls or send SMS from the desktop via Google Voice, and get on-screen Caller ID from all my phones. A nifty companion for Phone Amego on the Mac is Prowl which is a Growl client for iOS. By configuring the Prowl plug-in on the Mac, I can receive caller ID notifications on my iPhone or iPad when my home phone rings. Between iCal logging and the Prowl notification log, I have a handy (searchable) record of my calls on my iPad (or iPhone).

Google Voice can also forward incoming text messages (SMS) to all your mobile devices as well as sending outgoing SMS free of charge. I have voice mail transcriptions forwarded to my cell phone and use IM+ (a popular IM client) on my iPad. I find it easier to read voice mail transcriptions on my iPad than a tiny cell phone screen. I can also reply to SMS messages from my iPad and the reply is automatically routed back through Google Voice.

A missing link for many users is how to get SMS text messages received on your Google Voice number to display on your Mac desktop. I use a free webservice called “GVMax” ( to monitor my Google Voice account and automatically forward SMS or voice mail notifications to Google Talk (GTalk Instant Messaging service). On the Mac, I use iChat as my GTalk client. On the iPad, I use IM+. When someone sends an SMS text message to my GV number, within seconds it appears in iChat where I can reply directly.

The instructions for getting started with GVMax lack a clear overview of how it works, so I’ve expanded on them below.

(1) login to your Google Voice account on the web and navigate to “Settings -> Voice Settings -> Voicemail & Text”. Configure “Voicemail Notifications” and “Text Forwarding” to point to your GMail address (this step will allow GVMax to configure the rest automatically).

(2) proceed to the GVMax website and create a GVMax account using your Google Voice login name which will often be the same as your GMail address. You can specify a unique password, or use your GV password (the later makes the process a little simpler).

(3) Configure GMail filters to recognize messages from your Google Voice account and forward them to your GVMax forwarding address (which was created when you signed up). After signing up, you will find a button on your GVMax account page titled ‘Create GMail Filters” to do this automatically. Alternatively, you can create these filters yourself by following the instructions provided so you don’t need to share your GMail password with GVMax.

When an SMS arrives, Google Voice will notify your GMail account which will forward the notification to your GVMax forwarding address. The GVMax service converts the Google Voice Email notification to a Google Talk IM (Instant Message) so it can be picked up by any GTalk compatible IM client such as iChat.

To summarize, I can:

(1) Send messages via SMS or IM from my desktop, iPad, or cell phone.

(2) Be notified of incoming calls, voice mail, or SMS messages on my desktop, iPad, and/or cell phone.

All of this is available with no monthly or per message fees except for sending an SMS directly from my phone (sending via IM is free).


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Formatting International Phone Numbers in Apple’s Address Book

If you’re like many Americans, you may not have thought much about making international phone calls unless you need to travel or call friends or family overseas. Apple’s Address Book offers a lot of flexibility for formatting phone numbers to match international conventions, but little guidance for how to make it all work smoothly.

The first time you see a phone number like (0)6 78 91 23 45, you might wonder why it appears as (067) 891-2345 or how to dial this number correctly from where you are. The key is to understand a little bit about phone number notation.

    In national notation, parentheses are used to indicate digits that are sometimes not dialed.

    In international notation, “+” is used to indicate that a country code follows and may be preceded by the International Direct Dialing prefix (IDD) if needed (011 in the United States).

By storing phone numbers in international format beginning with “+”, they should dial correctly from wherever you are. For example, a US phone number could be stored as follows:

+1 (234) 567-8910 with Address Book format +1 (###) ###-####

While a phone number in France could be stored as

+33 6 78 91 23 45 with Address Book format +33 # ## ## ## ##

By including the country code in the Address Book format, telephone numbers from different countries or regions will display correctly using the corresponding local convention. To customize your Address Book formats, navigate to “Address Book -> Preferences -> Phone” and select “Custom” in the Formats popup menu that appears.

The telephone numbers shown above can be dialed correctly from your cell phone regardless of where you are located. If you are calling from a landline, precede the number above by the International Direct Dialing prefix based on the country you are calling from.

Automatic dialing software such as Phone Amego can be configured to dial these numbers correctly based on your current location using the dialing options shown here:

While it might seem unnecessary to store so many digits, these formats have the advantage of being fully qualified and should work wherever you go. You can always skip dialing the country code and/or area code once you are familiar with local calling conventions. By taking a few moments to save phone numbers in international format, you won’t have to think about how to call home should you someday find yourself traveling in another part of the world.

In the US, dialing “1” followed by the area code and local number is sometimes called 11-digit dialing. Recent regulations require telephone companies to support 11-digit dialing when upgrading their systems. Older 7-digit dialing is being phased out in some areas to accommodate so called “overlay plans” (that overlay one area code on top of another so existing subscribers are not required to change their phone number).

Finally, some people may wonder how to store emergency contact numbers in their cell phone directory. By international convention (ITU-T E.123), the name of the first emergency contact is preceded by arabic numerals “01”, and the second by “02”. In the handset’s directory this might be displayed as “01Spouse” or “02Anna” enabling easy identification by the emergency services.

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A Better Way to Keep Track of your Calls

If you are a small business owner who uses a Mac, a landline phone, and an iPhone or iPad, Phone Amego can tie them all together. You can be notified with on-screen caller ID for calls received on your landline or your iPhone. You can return a call with one-click from your desktop. You can log calls in iCal as a separate calendar including the time and caller ID. By synching your calendar, you can keep a searchable record of your phone calls on your iPhone or iPad. Just type a contacts name or number in the calendar search field to see a record of your conversations.

If you use Growl (a notification system for Mac OS X) and Prowl (a Growl client for iOS), you can use your iPhone or iPad as a caller ID display for your landline phone(s). When a call comes in, a push notification will appear on your iOS device. You can dismiss the notification, or open the Prowl application to see a list of your calls. Tapping on the phone number will ask if you want to create a new contact or add it to an existing one.

The basic steps to configure Growl notification on your iOS device are as follows:

(1) Download and install Prowl on your iOS device.

(2) Goto the developers website and download the Prowl plug-in for your Mac .

(3) Create a Prowl account on the developers site.

(4) Launch the Growl Preference Pane on your Mac. Click on “Display Options” and scroll down to “Prowl” in the Display Styles list. Enter your account credentials and how you want to be notified.

(5) Launch Prowl on your iOS device and login to your account.


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