Communication is increasingly moving off the grid and into the cloud. For cellphone users -- especially ones with smartphones -- there are a host of online tools and apps that can help reduce usage on carrier plans and save money. One way to shave down costs is to drop extra SMS packages and use the bare minimum of minutes for calls. The recent proliferation of free Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services and instant-messaging applications makes it easier than ever to find low-cost communication alternatives.
Internet-based apps are apparently already cutting into the classic SMS text messaging business, once a cash cow for cell phone carriers. Over the last six months, SMS experienced its slowest growth in the past decade, The Wall Street Journal reported.
However, before you ditch your calling plan for an Internet-based alternative, you might want to manage your expectations. These options come at a lower cost, but most are not entirely free. VoIP services can suffer from lower audio quality than a traditional cellphone or land line, with muffled sound and slower connection times. Most of the messaging services, which are lightweight software or apps for your phone, require both sender and recipient to use the same app (even if on different smartphone operating systems.)
1. Skype: Devotees likeTechCrunch's Michael Arrington call this app "nearly perfect" for its ability to send text, voice or video messages over the Internet. In fact, it is so perfect that Microsoft (MSFT) purchased the eight-year-old company for $8.5 billion in May and members of Congress are getting special secure accounts. Skype works on all the major smartphone platforms, including Apple (AAPL) iPhone, Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry and Google's (GOOG) Android, as well as home computers and tablets that are connected to the Internet. Making Skype video calls from your home computer is free, and Skype-to-mobile-phone calls are priced at serious discounts, from 2.3 to 1.2 cents a minute. The quality is high, the user interface is delightful, and it's likely to only get better under Microsoft ownership.
2. Google Voice: If you're already a Gmail user, you may have activated the phone option in the last year. This allows you to make free calls directly from your home computer to any domestic phone number, either mobile or landline. The Google Voice app and service also transcribes voice mails, and allows you to send text messages and make very low-cost international calls, among many other features.
3. TextFree with Voice: The set-up for this multi-platform smartphone app takes less than a minute and you can make up to 10 minutes worth of free calls immediately under the new phone number (with a local area code) it assigns to you. After your free minutes are up, you have the option of buying more minutes (500 minutes for $9.99) or earning them at no cost by installing and opening promotional apps. (For example, install Zynga Poker and earn 24 TextFree minutes.)
4. LiveProfile: Free, fast and cross-platform. Are we talking about a drag queen on 42nd Street? Nope -- LiveProfile is another option among the growing number of free messaging apps for smartphones. Available for the iPhone, BlackBerry and Android, it's a real-time SMS alternative that allows communication of text, photos and video. A status update feature lets users share news on Facebook and Twitter as well. It's a good alternative for communicating with home if you're traveling to a foreign country or want to mass communicate with your contacts via status update. One note: To receive your texts and other messages, your friends must also have the LiveProfile app installed on their smartphones.
5. WhatsApp The instant-messaging app costs 99 cents allows for cross-platform instant messaging between iPhone, BlackBerry, Android and Nokia (NOK). You can instantly share text, photo, video or even recorded audio messages -- as well as share contact or location information with other WhatsApp users. A big bonus for this app is the ability to do a group chat.
6: AIM: This story wouldn't be complete without a mention of the pioneer of instant messengers created by AOL (AOL) (the publisher of DailyFinance). The free app is available for iPhone, BlackBerry and Android platforms and let's you instantly text message with AIM Buddies, Facebook chat friends and Google Talk contacts.
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