OBiON is a Seamless Bridge for Mobile, Social, Landline & VoIP Communications [Review]



OBiON, a free mobile communications app for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch now available for download from the iTunes App store, is an exciting — if still evolving — tool that offers more power and flexibility than any similar app available today.

The app is the mobile centerpiece in a new communication paradigm being charted by Obihai Technology, a Cupertino, CA start-up founded by the developers of the first Analog Telephone Adapter, which made “Internet calling” possible without the use of a computer and spawned the growth of Vonage and dozens of other Internet Telephony Service Providers.

Now, in conjunction with the OBiTALK web portal and the company’s Obi110 Voice Services Bridge, OBiON users can leverage the ability to make and receive calls from local or remote landlines, as well as to and from multiple VoIP services on Apple mobile devices.

At the outset, a disclaimer: this review is not meant to be an exhaustive inquiry into all of the configuration possibilities nor a study of the myriad use cases supported by the Obihai family of products. It is merely an overview of how the OBiON app can be used to take advantage of the OBi110 Voice Services Bridge and reap the benefits of its power and flexibility in the mobile environment.

Obihai Technology is a start-up making improvements to the OBiTALK web interface and to OBi110 firmware on an ongoing basis as a result of feedback from users such as this reviewer and others who are active in the company’s online forum. In nearly two months of playing with and testing various aspects of the service, Obihai engineers and customer service personnel proved themselves open to hearing about problems and difficulties with the technology and keen to make it as user-friendly as possible. Is it perfect? Not yet. But it’s definitely an intriguing and potentially disruptive development in voice communications. Those who choose to explore it as it continues to evolve are bound to have fun.

It may be useful to think of the OBi110 Voice Services Bridge, or OBi endpoint, as the hub in what could be a small calling network or, when linked with other OBi endpoints in what the company calls a user’s Circle of Trust, as one of multiple hubs in a larger network that can span countries throughout the world.

OBi endpoints support free calls between one another without the use of a computer — a user in San Francisco can pick up an analog phone attached to her OBi110 and call an OBi110 in Tel Aviv or Paris or Mumbai, speaking with the person answering the telephone connected there for nothing. Voice calls between OBi endpoints are as good or better than regular landline calls and are only dependent on a live Internet connection at the location of each endpoint.

But here is where the OBiON app starts to make things interesting. That gal with the OBi110 in San Francisco could be stuck on the freeway coming back from Lake Tahoe and, using OBiON over 3G — or if she happens to pull over to a refreshment stand with WiFi, so much the better — and with a two digit speed dial she can connect directly to the San Francisco endpoint or to the endpoints in Tel Aviv, Paris or Mumbai, again, for nothing.

But wait, there’s more: Maybe she knows her lover in Paris isn’t home but she’s just got to speak with him (or her) right away. She can make the free call to the OBi110 in Paris, which will answer and give her the opportunity to make a call to her lover’s cell phone using French PSTN calling services OR a VoIP service associated with the Paris-based Obi endpoint.

And it gets better still. The gal in San Francisco has a dead-beat brother whose only friends in the world live on an ashram in Northern India. He can download the free OBiON app to his iPhone, join his sister’s Circle of Trust and connect with her Obi endpoint to make inexpensive VoIP calls to India from his mobile device.

Perhaps you can begin to see where this might go when a circle of friends or a small business or any social network places Obi endpoints in strategic places and builds up Circles of Trust with one another. The key is that each Obi endpoint supports both PSTN and VoIP calling in and out and now, with the OBiON app, they become accessible by and to Apple’s entire family of mobile devices.

The OBiTALK website isn’t the prettiest thing on the Internet and the dashboard layout from which devices are added and Circles of Trust are managed isn’t exactly an exercise in sublime UI design, but the back end makes adding devices a snap and configuration wizards enable setting up VoIP services on OBi endpoints as painless as can be.

Firmware updates to OBi endpoints are easily handled through the OBiTALK portal as well.

The OBiON app accepts and processes inputs (dialing numbers, connecting calls, rendering ringtones and voice prompts, etc.) a little on the slow side, so users may have to be somewhat patient and deliberate in order to get the best experience out of the app. It should be noted however that almost all of this reviewer’s testing of the OBiON app occurred on an iPhone 3G, so it’s possible the beefier processor in later generation iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches will render this slight criticism moot.

Little goodies make OBiON cool, too, such as excellent call history (All, Received, Outgoing, Missed) that allows easy adding of contacts, and smart syncing between changes made in the OBiON app and those made on the OBiTALK web portal. The OBi110’s auto-attendant can be configured to answer calls placed by Trusted Caller IDs and the whole system can be secured by the use of a required PIN.

Some may point to the growing number of VoIP apps that work with Apple mobile devices, among them Truphone, Skype, Fring and the newest kid on the block — Viber — and say, “BFD.” But none of those applications leverage the connection between mobile, landline and VoIP services the way OBiON can. And none of those applications allow members of a user’s social network — whether they have an OBi endpoint or the OBiON app or not — to use the service to make calls from their own phones the way OBiTALK does.

Internet communication has been yanked away from the desktop and even the laptop in the past few years, led largely by Apple’s development of its line of mobile devices. Hardware sales and data usage trends indicate this movement is gaining momentum, even in a global economy that remains stagnant by many other metrics. Obihai’s mobile app plays well into these trends by giving users the best of both worlds with the option to leverage legacy phone services when necessary — and does so in a way that makes such flexibility far more accessible to non-technical users than ever before.

The OBi110 Voice Services Bridge is available from Amazon; the OBiON app is a free download at the iTunes app Store.