With no news for so many months after Google bought GrandCentral Communications in July 2007, a lot of people thought it might be one more Google acquisition that ended up getting shut down. But the service, which essentially gives you one number for all your phones, has risen anew as Google Voice, launching in limited release to current GrandCentral users starting March 12 and more widely in a few weeks.
The free service, whose former incarnation was reviewed positively by my colleague Arik Hesseldahl and by the New York Times, gives you a single phone number that, when called, can ring one or several of your other phone numbers as you choose, so you’re no longer tethered to a single work, home, or mobile number. The phone numbers are available in most U.S. area codes, though not internationally.
You get a central voicemail box for the messages that come to any of your phones. And you can listen to that voicemail as it’s being recorded so you can choose whether you want to pick it up. You can also record calls and store them. The services are available via the Web or through the phones. “Think of it as a way to manage the phone,” says Vincent Paquet, a GrandCentral cofounder and now senior product engineer at Google.
Now that Google has meshed GrandCentral services into its massive technology infrastructure--that's what took so long, says Paquet--the company has added a number of other useful features. For one, you can get automated transcripts of voicemails and view them on the Web. The transcripts aren't perfect, but more than good enough to get the gist at a glance.
There's also support for SMS messaging, so you can send and receive text messages from the service. You can also decide if you want each voicemail that comes in to send you an SMS message or an email. And Google has added conference calling, assuming your chosen phone has has call waiting. Moreover, the service is now integrated with your Google I.D., so you can use the same contacts that are in your Gmail account.
Finally, Google has added the ability to place international calls, if you buy packages via Google Checkout. (Google has contracts with carriers, so it doesn't use peer-to-peer technology like Skype.) U.S. calls are free. And there are some other useful features, such as the ability to add special greetings for various groups like friends, family, or work contacts, mark telemarketing calls as spam so they don't ring or go to voicemail, and block callers so they get a message that they've reached a non-working number (complete with the usual three-tone signal, heehee). You can even switch phones in the middle of a call.
It looks like a useful set of services, the only challenge being that you have to tell all your friends and contacts you have a new phone number.
Although Google is not announcing plans for advertising related to Voice, it's not hard to figure out a business there. Especially with the transcripts, it would be easy to target ads based on topics mentioned in them, assuming that doesn't freak out privacy hawks.
For now, though, Google Voice will be supported by revenues from charging for international calls. Paquet thinks that will be plenty of revenue to get to at least break-even.