4 free Web services let you hear -- and see -- your voice mail

These services offer extra such as forwarding calls to multiple phones or transcribing messages -- if you can score an invitation.

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Ribbit Mobile

Despite its confusing name, Ribbit Mobile is a Web voice mail service that you access primarily through a standard computer's Web browser. This service matches most of the features of Google Voice, and it already includes one thing the latter is missing (for now): VoIP.

Compared to the webmail-like interface of Google Voice and to Phonebooth's minimalist approach, Ribbit Mobile offers a more dynamic and colorful user experience. Its Web page is laid out like a virtual desktop. You can click on various widgets, such as a voice mail in-box and a phone dialing pad, and rearrange them to your liking. All of this is powered by Adobe Flash.

Ribbit Mobile

Ribbit Mobile's user interface is laid out like a virtual desktop.

Click to view larger image.

Like Google Voice and Phonebooth, you select a phone number from a list of those available to link the numbers of your other phones to. But unlike Google Voice, incoming calls can also be forwarded to your Skype account or to the voice-chat function of MSN Messenger or Google Talk accounts.

If you prefer, you can use your existing mobile phone number as your Ribbit Mobile main number from which to forward calls to your other phones and VoIP accounts. (Google Voice also lets you use your mobile phone number as your main number, but if you do that you lose important features such as call-forwarding.)

The address book of your user account incorporates a feature billed as "Caller ID 2.0," which searches Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter for the user profiles of the person calling you. Caller ID 2.0 also scrapes those social networking sites regularly to update you on a caller's most recent blog posts or tweets.

Ribbit Mobile provides an app for the iPhone, but not one for an Android-based phone. I did try out the mobile-Web formatted version of Ribbit Mobile. Initially, I found it more appealing and easier to navigate than Google Voice's mobile Web site version. But except for receiving transcriptions of voice mails, nothing else worked on the Droid Eris phone I used. All attempts to listen to voice mails or to make calls through the mobile version of the Ribbit Mobile front end failed.

Making calls

You can make and receive calls directly through the Web page in the same way that you'd make a call through Skype. There's a dialer widget that looks and works like a virtual phone -- just click the keypad numbers to dial the number you want to call. When you get an incoming call, this widget will ring like a real phone. As was the case with Google Voice, I found the overall sound quality of calls to be good, and it compared favorably to that of a decent cell phone or landline.

Ribbit Mobile offers two types of transcriptions: Automated, in which transcriptions are produced by a computer, and Business Grade, in which transcriptions are reviewed and edited (if necessary) by a person for an additional fee -- a level of service that Google Voice and Phonebooth don't offer.

Ribbit Mobile is currently in beta and is available free of charge, although Ribbit Corp. intends to roll out three versions later this spring, two of which won't be free. A Basic (free) account will include Automated voice mail transcriptions and free calling to other Ribbit Mobile members; a Plus account ($10 per month) will add 40 Business Grade transcriptions, 100 minutes of calls to domestic numbers and the ability to use two phones with your account. A Pro ($30 per month) account offers unlimited Business Grade transcriptions and calls to domestic numbers, along with the ability to put three phones on your account. With the latter, you also get a separate Ribbit Mobile number.

Bottom line

Ribbit Mobile's strength is its Web phone calling, which lets you make and receive calls directly through the Web page, using your computer itself as a phone. Incoming calls can also be routed to your Web-phone accounts, including Skype, Google Talk or MSN Messenger.

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