Google today is integrating Google Voice into the Gmail interface, adding yet another feature that turns the e-mail interface into a broader communications platform and, at the same time, goes after the Skype market for Web-based phone calls.
The integration will happen automatically today for consumer Gmail users in the U.S. Google Voice, which is now open to users without an invitation, will not yet integrate with Gmail accounts that are part of the Google Apps offerings for businesses.
That's unfortunate because a Web-based softphone feature for businesses would be a pretty strong differentiator between what others are offering in their online office productivity suites.
During a press event in Google's San Francisco office this morning, company executives were vague about the timeline for integrating Voice into the Apps version or the rollout of the service to other countries - though they said they are working on it.
In a demo, the company showed how the features that Google Voice users have come to expect from the web interface - things like screening calls, forwarding calls to another number during mid-conversation and integrating the dialer with the Google Contacts list - are also present in the smaller Gmail user interface.
The service is free and calls to the phones in the U.S. and Canada are free, at least through the end of the year. The company said it has no plans to start charging for calls to the U.S. and Canada but was clear that some of that is dependent on making some money on international calls.
In terms of international calling, calls to landline phones in many countries are a flat 2 cents per minute with no connection fee. Calls to mobile phones vary, depending on the country - but the company says the rates are competitive.
Gmail users without a Google Voice number can use the device for outbound calls - but the recipients of those calls will see a generic number on their Caller ID unit that won't work for a callback. Google, of course, is encouraging Gmail users to obtain their own.
Google Voice has come a long way since the company acquired and turned the Grand Central service into a Google one. But the company has taken its time on rolling out some features, much to the dismay of some users - myself included.
Two thing that Google Voice still cannot do:
- Number portability - the ability to convert a cell or landline number to a Google Voice account - remains just a dream. Google says they're working on it but it's a very complicated issue and the company doesn't want to introduce something that will make users jump through nightmare hurdles.
- Picture messaging: Google Voice numbers are sort of hybrid voice/mobile, which means they act like landline numbers but can be used to send and receive SMS text mesages. What they can't do is send or receive picture or video MMS messages.
With that said, I have been a big fan and loyal user of Google Voice for some time now and think that, with hundreds of millions of active Gmail users now being exposed to it, the service has the potential to revolutionize voice dialing for consumers and, eventually, businesses, too.
But it needs more exposure - and Google has come up with a pretty creative way of promoting it. The company will soon be placing big red phone booths - yes, an actual phone booth - into airports and on university campuses across the U.S. The booths, equipped with Google Voice technology, would give users a chance to try the service.
The service will begin rolling out today. Gmal users will find a "Place Call" link in their chat windows - but may need to install a browser plug-in first.
Separately, Google was asked for an update on the rejection of a Google Voice iPhone app by Apple, a move that resulted in an FCC inquiry just over a year ago. The company said, in a very vague way, that letters were filed to the FCC by some but that the matter hasn't progressed or otherwise moved forward. For now, iPhone users can access Google Voice via an advanced browser app using HTML5 - but it doesn't have the integration that Android mobile users have.
As always, Google has put together a fun video to explain how it all works.