Did you feel it? Something scary happened this week.
Google pulled the plug on public access to its XMPP network. Holy tech jargon, Batman! That sounds like a bunch of nonsense, I know.
Allow me to explain: Up until yesterday, Google allowed third-party apps and services to tap into that aforementioned network -- the mythical XMPP -- which in turned allowed them to provide you with free Internet-based phone service. Those of us who used an inexpensive little box called the OBi to get free home phone service have already dealt with (and moved on from) the change.
But the switch-off also affected apps that offered free VoIP calling from mobile devices -- including the popular Groove IP app for Android. And since Google has bafflingly still not opened up free voice calling via Hangouts for Android (cough, cough, WHAT THE HELL GOOGLE, sneeze), that leaves us without an easy and free way to make calls that don't eat up mobile minutes.
Well, fear not, my friends: There is an answer. And it comes from the same app that used to give us that free VoIP calling via Google.
Oh, yes: It's trusty ol' Groove IP. The company has pushed out a new update that lets you link its app up with a free calling service called Ring.to. When you open the app after the update, it'll prompt you to sign up for an account and pick a new phone number (an option that's apparently exclusive to Groove IP users). The whole process takes about 20 seconds and involves no personal details beyond your name and email address.
Then, shazam: You're back in business, sitting at a dialer and ready to make or receive calls over the 'Net. No charges, no hidden fees.
Now, there is one noteworthy downside to this setup: By default, you're stuck using a newly assigned phone number -- not your own familiar digits. That means any calls you make via the service will come from that new number, and anyone who wants to call you on the VoIP service (as opposed to your regular mobile service) will need to dial your new number, too. Not quite as convenient as the old all-in-one Google Voice forwarding solution.
You can port your Google Voice number over to Ring.to if you want, though I'm not sure I'd recommend that for most people. The best way to look at this, I think, is as an emergency backup solution for when you're low on mobile minutes and don't want to rack up extra charges (especially if you use a low-cost and low-minute prepaid plan like I do). You'll just have to accept the fact that any calls you make will come from an unusual number, which isn't ideal but is certainly better than nothing.
And with any luck, it'll be a short-term solution -- just until Google comes around and delivers voice calling via Hangouts for us lowly Android rabble (sneeze, snort, snore).
The free calling is available through both the free-and-ad-supported Groove IP app and the $5 pro version of the program. Both versions of the app integrate nicely with the native Android dialer and allow you to set up rules for when VoIP-based calling will kick in.
Happy dialing, my fellow freebie-lovers!