LAS VEGAS — Peter Sisson is the CEO of Toktumi, a San Francisco company with a cool app that adds a second phone number to your iPhone. He kinda looks like Roger Sterling, the silver-haired, hard-drinking, hard smoking character from Mad Men.
Except Peter isn’t smoking, and he isn’t drinking. But he’s certainly got the same moxie. Sisson borrowed someone’s badge to gain entrance to an exclusive, invite-only CES event so that he could pitch a new version of his iPhone app to some of the hundreds of press in attendance. I’m glad he did, because it’s a doozie.
Toktumi’s Line2 iPhone app is a “virtual” phone service that adds a second number to your iPhone. Aimed at business users, it allows you to keep your iPhone number for friends and family, and give your Line2 number to business contacts.
The app is already in the app store, but a major update is winding through Apple’s approval process. If the updated app is approved next week, it will be the first third-party app to offer telephone calls over cell networks AND Wi-Fi.
It’s a big step for a “virtual” phone service like Toktumi, transforming it into a truly alternative telephone service that rivals the built-in telephone functions of the iPhone.
In other words, you get a second telephone number that offers incoming and outgoing calls, cheap international rates, and visual voicemail just like the iPhone. The app doesn’t have to be running to accept a call — if someone rings your Line2 number, your iPhone rings as normal.
Oddly, it was this replication of “core functions” that Apple cited to the FCC as the reason it rejected Google’s Voice app. An app that makes calls just like the iPhone might confuse users, Apple told the FCC.
But it now seems clear that Apple rejected Google’s app not because of customer confusion, but because of Google.
“It’s clear that Apple rejected the Google app for competitive reasons,” said Sisson as he demoed his app for me. “It’s Apple’s sandbox, particularly now that Google has the Nexus One.”
Line2 offers much the same functionality as the Google Voice app, but Apple likely doesn’t see it as a competitive threat. It’ll offer everything in Google Voice (except SMS) – and more. It offers lots of business features such as caller ID, call rejection and re-routing, and conference calling.
It also works on the cell network when away from Wi-Fi or in the car, unlike rival VOIP services like Skype
(Correction: Vonage offers outgoing calls over cell and Wi-Fi, a feature introduced in October, but incoming calls only on the cell network, not over Wi-Fi).
The addition of Wi-Fi calling is a major boon, especially for iPhone customers who live in cell network dead zones. Wi-Fi calling also offers a cheap alternative to expensive overseas roaming charges.
“And you get to pay for it,” said Sisson, laughing. “That’s how we make money but you get support and lots of uptime. There’s also someone to call. With Google, there’s no one to call if something goes wrong. Google Voice is a great consumer app but that’s why we call this a ‘pro’ app.”
There’s a chance the app won’t be approved. Sisson was in touch with Apple’s Phil Schiller several months ago. He asked Schiller, the de facto head of the approval process, if it was OK to add Wi-Fi calling. Schiller replied with a noncommittal email saying there are other phone apps with that feature but he couldn’t guarantee it would be approved. Nor could he provide guidance. If the update isn’t approved, it’ll be a major blow, said Sisson. “You have to read the tea leaves and take a risk.”
Sisson is crossing his fingers it will be approved next week and be available for download in early February. Around the same time, Toktumi will be releasing a Mac desktop application that will make calls over the web, as well as offering customization and management features.
“It’s like Skype but it’s all unified,” said Sisson. “It works on your PC, your iPhone and your land line.”