Sunday, September 24, 2006

Instant messages. Text messages. E-mail. Voicemail. Blogs. Online social networks. And the good ol’ cell phone. If you thought there were enough ways to communicate with others and express yourself, think again.

At this week’s DEMOfall 2006 conference in San Diego, a showcase of some of the most promising innovations in technology, each of nearly 70 companies will have six minutes on stage to tout their new products. At least a half-dozen will present new ways of blasting your voice, words or thoughts to others.

“A lot of building blocks are falling into place, allowing for a lot more experimentation to happen in the market, whether it’s personal expression or mobile services,” said Chris Shipley, the event’s producer.

Cell phones are more powerful than ever. More homes have acquired high-speed Internet connections, helping to carve the path for new trends in online creativity, community building and communications.

A voice-messaging service to be introduced today by Pinger Inc. takes advantage of improved connections to zap voice messages between cell phones and personal computers. Ideas that pop into your head late at night or other impolite times to call no longer have to be confined to a written e-mail.

Instead, you could pick up a phone, talk and send the voice message to your friends’ e-mail or cell phone text-message inboxes. You could even post the audio message, or “pinger,” as a comment on their personal Web page.

Recipients then listen to your voice rather than read your words.

The service aims to be a welcome alternative to texting, its co-founders said, especially for those who haven’t mastered thumb-typing on cell phones. It also could be a convenient way to deliver a message to a group of people.

To send a message, users first need to register online with Pinger and give it a list of contacts. Registered users then could dial Pinger from their cell phones or any phone and name the person or group of people to whom they want to send a voice message.

Pinger then acts as the messenger. Recipients, however, don’t need to be registered with Pinger to get the message.

“It’s just faster for me to talk than to do e-mail,” said Greg Woock, co-founder and chief executive officer of Pinger and owner of a Treo smart phone. “And if we’re right about this, this could be a new communication tool for everyone: It’s like BlackBerrys for everybody, but with a phone.”

Soccer coaches reaching out to players’ parents, friends meeting up for dinner, or busy moms who can’t pull away until after the children are asleep — the scenarios for the potential uses for the service run the social gamut.

The San Jose, Calif., startup plans to offer registered users a limited number of Pinger messages every month for free and will charge for additional ones. Final pricing for the service has not been set, but users who sign up before Oct. 1 will get six months free, the company said.

Mr. Shipley, who screened hundreds of products for the elite semiannual technology event, thinks Pinger’s offering can quickly become popular.

“Combining the ease of instant messaging with voicemail, and being able to dial one number to access anybody in my contact list is very cool,” Mr. Shipley said.

Another startup, GrandCentral Communications, seeks to help users streamline and better manage all their phone numbers and voicemail boxes by aligning them under a permanent phone number.

Today, GrandCentral will introduce a public test of its one-phone-number-for-life communications service. Users can give out their Internet-based GrandCentral phone number and then control — via a Web account — how and where they want those calls delivered.

An incoming call, for instance, can ring all your phones at once, or go straight to voicemail. Calls from certain numbers can be blocked. And for unrecognized calls, the system can be set up to force the callers to identify themselves. You can then decide whether to pick up the call or let it go to voicemail.

The service could even convert a voicemail into the text of an e-mail, or record the call before you answer. It also will store voicemails for you on its servers as long you remain a subscriber.

The service is free for a basic package of features and will be $14.99 a month for the additional recording or voicemail storage features.

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