Ina Fried

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Ex-Palm Team Finds Success Offering Free Calling and Texting for iPhone and Android

Given that Pinger offers Android and iOS customers free texting and free calling, it is perhaps not shocking that their app has taken off.

That said, the small San Jose-based start-up has managed to rack up some pretty impressive numbers. The team, led by several ex-Palm and Handspring workers, is announcing on Thursday that its TextFree app is now serving up more than a billion text messages per month and its voice app, released in December, is already connecting more than one million minutes of voice calls a day.

Users get a handful of calling minutes free and can then either pay for more or earn them by downloading apps or performing other actions.

“We’re making calling and texting free, which really no one has done on a sustainable level,” said Joe Sipher, Pinger’s “chief product and marketing guy” and a former top executive at Handspring. The company brought in $1.5 million in revenue in December and was profitable for the year.

And by selling advertising space to companies pitching their apps, Pinger is yet another company aiming to build a business around helping mobile application companies break through the discovery challenge–a business model being tapped these days by lots of companies from start-ups like Mobilewalla to established companies, such as Opera.

Sipher said that a lot of the voice minutes–on the order of 80 percent–are coming via devices that don’t have a built-in ability to make voice calls, such as the iPad and recent versions of the iPod Touch. Still others come from iPhone owners who don’t want to use up their alotted minutes or pay for a bigger plan.

“It’s a lot of iPod Touches, a few iPads and quite a few iPhones,” Sipher said. The company also has a version for Android.

Sipher and partner in crime Greg Woock started Pinger several years ago with a completely different idea. Initially, Pinger was a product for exchanging voice messages, similar in concept to the Thoughts app that Jawbone launched last year. However, after burning through three-fourths of the cash they had raised, Woock and Sipher realized that there was no way to get the idea to both scale and profitability.

But, when the iPhone came along, Sipher said the pair saw a different opportunity come their way.

While the core audience is young people–including many high school students–TextFree has found a lot of interesting niches. Sipher said the app is popular with those in the U.S. military because they get an American phone number and can send free texts to loved ones from
Germany or Afghanistan or wherever. “We’re making a lot of people really happy that way too,” Sipher said.

It is not the first pairing for Sipher and Woock. The two were also the leadership team for the short-lived attempt by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group to create a line of MP3 players and other electronics.