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Google Voice (GrandCentral) Has the Potential to Revolutionize Communication

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

GrandCentral is a phone management service that first launched in 2006 and was acquired by Google for over $50 million in 2007. Since, it hasn’t really been in the news much. Other than a few jabs at their marketing gimmicks and coverage of outages, this project has been low key. This is all about to change as the service prepares for a public launch under a new product name: Google Voice.

The 21 month delay between acquisition and re-launch was, unfortunately, expected. Like most Google acquisitions, the service has been rebuilt from the ground up, a lengthy process that has in the past taken an average of 16 months or so. Now Google is ready to launch this new GrandCentral/Google Voice service.

Some key new features have been added that make the service incredibly intriguing. The basic idea around GrandCentral is “one phone number for all your phones, for life.” Grand Central gives you one phone number that can access all your numbers, (cell, home, mobile, and work numbers); the GrandCentral numbers stay the same, as many of these number change over the course of a user’s lifetime.

Most people have never used the service, because Google froze new accounts following the acquisition. The freeze hasn’t being lifted yet (and we’ve heard there are tens of thousands of people on the wait list). But starting Thursday existing accounts are being given the option of switching to the new service and allow access to the new features. Over the next several weeks Google will begin to let new people in. Some people, impatient to try out the new service, have been paying as much as $650 on Ebay for an account.

The service was free and is still going to be free. Users can purchase credit (much like Skype) to make international calls at rates far below what they normally pay. GrandCentral will also remain solely a U.S. service. Google wants people to use their Google Voice phone number exclusively (and in fact it’s the only way to use it properly).

Google’s added new features and plugged some big holes that limited the original service. A problem with the original service – it didn’t allow text messaging, so you had to tell people your mobile number as well if you wanted to send and receive text messages with them. Now, Google Voice will accept text messages and forward them on to your mobile phone. You can respond to those messages as well. Google is using the existing Gateway technology (which is used by Google Chat) to power this feature.

Google also added a nifty transcription feature (which is using the same subscription service as Google 411) for voicemails. All voicemails are transcribed easily saved into the system and searchable. Users can add notes or tags to voicemails and each transcription details how confident Google is about the success of voice transcription; Google Voice highlights word in lighter color that they are not confident were subscribed properly. And transcription takes about 30 seconds to be seen in the system from the end of a voicemail. All in all, Google may have just revolutionized voicemail.

Google has added new settings that allow users to route calls from specific people straight to voicemail, or your mobile phone, etc, instead of having to state their name and then be forwarded accordingly. The primary user interface for Google Voice is through your phone via an audio menu. But users can also log in to the website to administer the account and view activity. This interface has undergone a makeover - It now looks very much like a comprehensive Gmail inbox with tabs for Voicemail, SMS, Recorded calls, Placed calls, Received calls and Missed calls. And the Google Voice is easily integrated into the list of links to

Google apps at the top left of each application. All SMS and transcribed voicemails are searchable and taggable, which is very useful and will change the way people interact with these messages. Google also says that full integration with Gmail is coming, but won’t say when. If all of one’s email, SMS and transcribed voicemails are able to be organized into a single inbox: this could be life-changing. You can also respond to text messages from the interface and initiate phone calls, which then call your designated phone and then the recipient.

Google Voice also added a conference calling feature allowing conference calls with up to six participants and the ability to record. International calls can also be made through the system at very reasonable rates (about the same as Skype’s international phone rates).

The key to this service seems to be reliability. With previous outages and technical issues (both in Google Voice/Gran Central and Gmail), Google has to assure stability to its users. It always seemed to make sense that Google would one day try and buy Skype from Ebay, but I guess that wouldn’t make any sense anymore considering what type of product they appear to have here.

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