When Google announced its integrated phone service called Google Voice Thursday, it said something very loud.
Google is saying it wants to be the world’s communication hub, and hundreds of companies — ranging from mobile phone operators to Skype to Microsoft better be listening.
Google Voice is a free service that offers « one number for life, » so that one incoming call to that number gets forwarded to all your other numbers — work, mobile, home or hotel room. Users get free calls across the United States and international rates cheaper than Skype. Landlines, computers and cellphones can all access its services.
Voicemails are machine transcribed and sent as e-mails or text messages, and there are loads more features, including smart handling of SMS messages and free conference calls. It’s built on top of GrandCentral, a company Google acquired in July 2007.
Google Voice clearly aims to steal some of Skype’s 400 million online callers. But it’s trying less to be a Skype replacement than a complete revolution in how you communicate — and with Google Voice, no matter who makes your phone, or sells you minutes or bills your land line, Google will always be involved.
Google Voice will eventually tie into Google apps, making it a threat to Microsoft Outlook and other business communication tools currently used by small and medium-sized businesses, according to Jon Arnold, principal at J. Arnold Associates, a firm that focuses on IP research and communications.
« This makes Google the hub of your communications center. That should be enough to make Microsoft worried for Outlook and the telcos worried for the scale of Google’s ambitions » says Arnold, « When you control the address book, you control the customer, so to speak. »
Chicago-based tech consultant Kapil Sachdev is a longtime GrandCentral user who converted his office phone to use GrandCentral and he loves the new offering. He’d held off putting the number as the only one on his business card because it wasn’t clear what would happen after Google bought the company.
But that will change soon.
« Google Voice offers freedom, » Sachdev said after playing with the new application Thursday. Comparatively, Skype is limited, he said, because « you are tied to a computer all the time with Skype. »
But it isn’t just Skype that needs to worry about Google Voice.
While Google Voice product manger Craig Walker downplayed the threat to traditional telecom software, he did cite corporate PBX systems as an example of what Google Voice is trying to do — « [PBX system] can do a million things, but it’s very difficult to use … what we want to do is go after users who want that type of control. »
Ben Lilienthal, general manager of the audio services group for Citrix Online, which offers VOIP-based services to businesses, isn’t convinced that businesses will move to the service very soon.
« For a consumer, it is a pretty compelling service, » Lilienthal said. « But I think if you are a business user, it’s not necessarily a road you would want to go down. There are a bunch of things business users worry about that consumers don’t. If it doesn’t work, can I get a live person on the phone? Is it reliable? What kind of quality of service can I get? »
He points to recent prolonged Gmail outages as reason why companies might think twice about switching over to the service.
Google Voice also threatens to disrupt voice-to-text startups like SpinBox, with built-in support for turning your voicemail messages into searchable text. Voice-to-text is one of the cornerstones of Google’s drive into mobile search. Google already uses the same technology to power GOOG-411 and the voice-activated search app for the iPhone. Getting even more samples — from messages left for users — will only help tune the algorithms for more lucrative ventures.
The biggest change for GrandCentral users is the new interface, which will look a lot like Gmail (though thus far it does not appear that Voice will be integrated directly with Gmail as many had speculated). The new Google Voice interface changes the inbox view, offering SMS messages, access to voicemail and other features in a sidebar on the left, with the main message list in the center.
Google hasn’t set a timetable yet for opening up Google Voice to everyone, but current GrandCentral users should receive instructions on how to change over to Google Voice in the next couple of days.
For more information on how Google Voice works, check out the videos below. The first introduces the new voicemail transcription feature and the second shows how you make calls with Google Voice. There are also quite a few more videos covering various other Voice features in the Google YouTube channel.