Get the Most Out of the Cloud

Cloud Phone Services Offer Flexible Calling Options

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If you subscribe to a triple-play broadband package through a major cable or phone company, chances are good that your phone service already runs through the cloud--that is, the Internet. But you can get even more flexible calling options--and cool extras such as video chat or automatic voicemail transcripts--from a pure cloud service provider such as Skype or Google.

Skype has emerged as a versatile cross-platform service for phone calls, instant messaging, and chat over the Web, even from an Android, iOS, or Symbian (Nokia) phone. And if your phone has a front-facing camera, you can video-chat with your Skype contacts (as long as they have a camera, too).

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced that it would acquire Skype; how the deal might affect the service, and its pricing, remains to be seen. Currently, a basic Skype account is free, but can call only other Skype accounts. To make calls to landline phones or cell phones, you'll need a paid account, which can set you back $3 per month for unlimited calls in North America, and up to $20 per month depending on how many countries you want to be able to call. To receive calls from landlines and cell phones, you'll also need a Skype online number, which costs about $18 for three months, depending on the country code.

Although Skype gives you awesome flexibility in how and where you can make and receive calls, the piecemeal feature selection and à la carte pricing options seem needlessly complex. But for people who want an out-and-out replacement for their primary phone service, Skype is a good choice.

Google Voice is an excellent service for people who want to pull all their various phone lines together under a single number. Google Voice is mainly free for U.S. customers, charging only for international calls placed with the service.

First you choose a special Google Voice phone number in any area code you prefer, and then you enter the numbers of the phones you want to associate with that number, such as your cell phone, home phone, and office phone.

Any phone you add just needs to be accessible to you so that you can receive a setup call or text message to activate it. Once that's done, Google Voice will automatically route incoming calls to any or all of your phones according to rules you set up; for instance, you can set it to send calls straight to voicemail during certain hours.

You can elect to use your cell phone number as your Google Voice number, but to do so you'll need to request a new number from your wireless carrier. Google is also working on making it possible to use your landline number as your Google Voice number. If you decide not to mess with number porting and you simply choose a new Google Voice number, you can still program your office phone or cell phone to autoforward to Google Voice.

Google Voice's coolest feature is its visual voicemail, which attempts to transcribe voice messages into text so that you can read them instead of having to dial in and listen. The accuracy is far from perfect, but it's usually good enough to give you a rough idea of what the call was about so you can decide whether to respond.

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