Ina Fried

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France’s Orange Hopes to Put the Squeeze on Rivals with an iPhone Voice Mail App

While few in the U.S. know Orange as anything other than a color or a fruit, the France Telecom mobile unit is hoping to change that with an app that improves upon the iPhone’s built-in voicemail.

At Demo on Monday, Orange plans to show off ON VoiceFeed–a program that lets users create custom greetings for individual callers or groups of callers. The idea is to be able to leave a generic message for the masses, while offering something special to co-workers, loved ones or other groups.

The app is slated to be made available for free in the App Store during the next two weeks for those in the UK, U.S. and France. Longer term, Orange can envision a business model that aims to make money by offering to return international calls using VoIP at cheaper rates than are offered by whatever carrier a smartphone owner is using.

While much of Orange is focused on fending off rivals like Skype and Google Voice that would usurp their core business, a small unit at the company–Orange Vallee–is trying to come up with disruptive apps of its own. ON VoiceFeed is not the unit’s first foray; it has also been beta testing an Android product that builds a “living address book.” That product has about 100,000 testers, Orange said.

Given that Orange’s core business generates about eight billion dollars in free cash flow, there are clearly a lot of people at the company looking to preserve that. But, with all that is at risk, it helps to have a “Plan B” and “Plan C,” says Giles Corbett, the head of the Orange Vallee unit that developed the Android and iPhone apps.

After debuting the Android app last year, Orange hoped to quickly follow with apps for the iPhone, BlackBerry and other smartphones, but underestimated the amount of time it would take to rethink what made sense for each platform. The company still hopes to expand beyond the iPhone and Android at some point.

As for the iPhone voice mail program, users can record a custom greeting for a loved one or let their co-workers know they are out of the country without broadcasting that to anyone who calls. Corbett says the product transforms the experience for those who end up in voice mail.

“They are used to voice mail being a dead-end thing,” Corbett said. “All of a sudden it’s ‘Oh’, that’s what (so and so) is doing.”

Indeed, in testing many callers started speaking when they heard a customized greeting–assuming it was the person answering and not voice mail. Now, ON VoiceFeed messages begin with a tone to let callers know that, however personal the greeting, it is still a recorded message.

As for why Orange is testing its products in the U.S. rather than just on its home turf, Corbett noted that nearly half of Android users are in North America and that the region remains home to the largest concentration of iPhone users. Plus, he noted, the traditional geographic boundaries are breaking down with Skype and all of the similar services that sit on top of smartphones, regardless of who the underlying carrier may be.

“Telecoms are going to become much, much more global,” Corbett said.

For a better idea of how the voice mail app will work, here’s a video that Orange posted on YouTube.

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