Two Wednesdays ago, Google took their Google Voice concept a step further, adding voice calling to and from standard phone numbers to their GMail web interface. Twenty-four hours later, the company stated that they had completed over one million phone calls through the system, which allows users to call locations in the United States and Canada for free, and international locations for very low per-minute rates.
The system works tightly with Google Voice, which is now available to any user with a Google account in the United States. Calls placed and received via the GMail-based voice system are logged in Google Voice, and contacts in GMail’s address book integrate seamlessly into both systems, including many smartphones via Google Sync, Google’s surrogate Exchange ActiveSync server. Additionally, Google Chat, as the service is called, shows up as a potential number for Google Voice’s phone forwarding rule selection, which has historically allowed incoming and outgoing calls to be connected to a user’s choice of land-line or mobile phones. On the voicemail side, messages are machine-transcribed and sent via e-mail and/or text message as well as displayed in the Google Voice interface, though transcription quality tends to leave significant room for improvement, from the author’s experience.
Pundits are arguing which company is impacted the most by this announcement: Skype, traditional telephone companies, or Facebook, which recently partnered with Vonage to start a Voice over IP solution of their own. Google Voice significantly undercuts Skype’s per-minute rates to traditional phones, though Google has left open the possibility of charging per-minute for outgoing calls to the US and Canada, and users seem to prefer an application like Skype running on their computers to a sub-window of GMail. Likewise, traditional telephone companies have hardware phone systems, which Google Chat does not, though Google Voice allows users to route calls to both standard (landline/cellular) and PC-based (Google Chat or the Google-owned Gizmo Project) phones using the same incoming number.
One important note: Google Chat is not yet available for GMail accounts based on Google Apps, such as Mines’s MyMail system. Google says it is working on establishing feature parity between Google Apps and “direct” Google accounts, so MyMail users and others on Google Apps based systems may not have long to wait until this feature is available to them. For now though, a standard GMail account is free to create and Google has honed the service over the past week or two to the point that the system is high-quality enough to use as a viable supplement to a mobile phone, or as an easy way to circumvent long distance charges associated with a landline, as long as you are comfortable using your computer to make the call.