Can start-up Ribbit conquer 'unified voice' before Google & Verizon?

A small, Silicon Valley-based start-up with an AT&T heritage is now working side-by-side big partners such as Salesforce.com and Adobe in an effort to revolutionize voice calls as we know them today.

Dubbing itself "the Silicon Valley's first phone company," a small start-up named Ribbit has launched a beta test of Adobe Flash-based software aimed at cutting the time and expense around so-called "unified communications." Its objective is to enable people with only light programming skills to quickly build voice applications that will work across Skype VOIP, multi-carrier cell phones, instant messagines, and Wi-Fi calls.

Probably in January, Ribbit will start talking about a consumer software product that's also under way at the Mountain View, CA-based company, said Don Thorson, the start-up's vice president of marketing, in an interview today with BetaNews.

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Ribbit has already used its own development tools to build a business application for Salesforce.com, designed to allow mobile calls and voice and text messages from various other sources to flow smoothly throughout the Salesforce.com environment.

But the release of Ribbit's development software happened within a couple of months of Google's rollout of Android and Verizon's Open Access announcement -- two other initiatives that also address easing the process of porting voice applications easily between platforms.

Last June, Adobe unveiled its AIR development platform, formerly code-named Apollo, for the development of Web applications using Flash as the display platform.

Thorson said he sees these developments as potentially playing right into his new firm's hands. "In fact, Android developers might also make use of our software in building applications," he said.

Could Ribbit's mission become broader? As a developer partner of Salesforce.com, Ribbit also turned up twice as an invited presenter at Adobe conferences earlier this year.

But Thorson also contended that a start-up has the advantage of agility. Both of Ribbit's co-founders -- Ted Griggs and Crick Waters -- have extensive experience in building equipment for phone companies. Waters, for example, previously worked for AT&T.

"They know that a traditional telephony carrier wouldn't be able to move quickly enough," according to the VP.

Since last week's rollout of the software at a developers' bash in San Francisco, Ribbit has posted a couple of applications on its Web site: an Adobe AIR Phone which places calls from your PC to a Flash phone, and a chalkboard interface to a browser-based phone that operates inside Salesforce.com.

Thorson said that most Ribbit beta testers so far are building solutions that use the AIR phone. For instance, the veterans' organization Salute America's Heroes has produced an application that lets volunteer workers make calls to the association over VOIP from their Web browser free of charge. In the past, the volunteers had to pay for traditional voice calls placed over phone lines.

Beyond ease of use, achieved by exploiting the Flex/Flash API, Thorson cited the full-blown, Lucent-certified and public switched telephone network-capable (PSTN) software switch underneath the tools' covers as another point of product distinction. Ribbit is running the software switch on Linux blades.

But Ribbit's tools also allow for development from Windows and other operating systems -- and unlike Android, Ribbit isn't following an open source model, Thurson noted.

Downloads of the beta software are free to any visitor to Ribbit's developer site. Ribbit hasn't decided yet which pricing approach to use when the development software enters commercial release, probably in the first quarter of next year.

But, said Thorson, Ribbett also plans to help sell and promote the solutions created by its outside developers, giving these developers a big chunk of the action.

As a partner of Salesforce.com, Ribbit is gaining similar benefits on the other side of the equation, according to the VP.

Ribbit has reportedly raised $13 million in start-up funding so far from investors that include KPG Ventures, Allegis Partners, and Alsop-Louie Partners.


Update ribbon (small)


1:45 pm EST December 18, 2007 - This morning, we learned Ribbit will be partnering with not just Salesforce.com and Adobe but OpSource, too, in efforts to beat out telecom players by bringing together various kinds of "calling" -- such as VOIP, mobile messaging, and texting -- into an integrated environment which is easily portable across multiple cell phones and other devices.

Crick Waters, Ribbit's vice president for strategy and development, confirmed in a written statement today that his company will be using OpSource's SaaS-based software and infrastructure for on-demand software delivery in an application for Salesforce.com -- one of several 'unified communications' solutions created so far by Ribbit and its initial community of independent developers.

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