Not content with dominating the world of search, email, maps, and pictures, Google has set its sights on another target: your mobile phone. No we aren't talking Android, but Google Voice. So can the search giant really make a difference against a plethora of calling cards? We got calling to find out.
Currently available only in the US through beta invite, it is clear Google has big plans for the software formally known as Grand Central.
The premise is simple, through its Google Voice website you can make calls anywhere in the world, manage a single number and have numerous devices ringing at the same time.
The core of the product is the website. Designed in a similar guise to Gmail (what else did you expect) the site acts as a communications hub for all your calling needs.
Set-up is simple. A quick wizard lets you create a single Google number that you can then use. Running through the easy-to-use set-up process you can then add up to six numbers be it your mobile phone, home or work line for example that will automatically ring when your Google number is dialled.
Having all the phones in your house ring is a scary though, but that's what you can do with this web-based software.
Get past the noise issues, and it means that rather than give people a barrage of numbers to reach you at your house, the office, the car, or the country club, you have to manage just the one number. Nice.
So you've now informed the missus, the mistress and your dentist of your new number, got your new Google Voice business cards printed, you are ready to hit the big time.
Calls to the US (remember this is a US only service at the moment) are free while Google plans to follow Skype's Skype Out business model by offering you the chance to make international calls from the service for a small fee, which you credit to your account via Google Checkout. That fee depends on where you are calling, however calls to the UK cost 2 cents a minute to a landline and 19 cents a minute to a mobile phone. The mobile phone costs are comparable with most calling cards on the market, however the 2 cents a minute is expensive. Double in fact on what is available on the market, but still far cheaper than most US phone operators like AT&T. You do get 10 cents credited to your opening account to try it out albeit briefly.
Why the extra expense? Well Google hope that you'll for go the price hike once you get used to the numerous features you get over those 1-800 calling cards you find in a dirty shop on the wrong side of town.
The main one is connectivity to your Google contacts. If you've sync'd your contacts with Google already then all you have to do is find the right person to call and press the "call" button on the website either from your PC or, you guessed it, your mobile phone.
Doing so induces some clever trickery, the software phoning you back and then connecting your call around the US or the world over a VoIP connection.
Those who you decide to grace with your voice will get your Google Voice number displayed on their phone rather than your usual number, but either way the phone calls we made to both cellphone and landline users in the US and the same in the UK were crisp and clear.
No one we called has so far been able to tell we were phoning from anything other than a regular phone.
On the reverse, i.e., when people phone you, you get a number of options including the ability to take the call (handy), or boot it straight to voicemail, which it then transcribes and displays in your inbox on the website. There is a third rather handy feature that allows you to listen in on the voicemail and then pick up once you realise it's not your mother after all.
Why should you get excited? Well while all this can be done via the comfort of your web browser on your PC or Mac, it can also be done via the browser on your phone be it the Apple iPhone via Safari or an app on the BlackBerry and Android handsets like the HTC Hero, or any phone with a browser for that matter.
As it's a website based application, there aren't any restrictions, something that AT&T users will have found with apps on the iPhone like Skype and Fring.
As you can imagine the possibility of calling international for anywhere from 2 cents a minute from your mobile phone is a compelling one, especially considering operator AT&T blocks international calls for all customers for the first 90 days of your contract.
And yes there is SMS support, although no MMS support.
VerdictSo what's the catch? Well currently the software doesn't support Google Apps so if you want to take advantage of the contacts element of the service you'll have to export and re-import them into a personal account. Furthermore there is the niggling worry that it is yet another element of your life handed to the company from Mountain View.
Yes they've already got your search queries, have your email, and now about to control your phone calls as well. If Skynet were real and about to sweep in and take over it wouldn't be hard to knock you off the grid and out of touch with society.
So will it take off? Judging by our play we would say it will, however not as fast as other Google properties.
A couple of factors are likely to hold back the instant success, none of which are in Google's hands. People will have to determine whether they want to tell the world they've changed their number. Yes your old number still works, but people who've had the same number for the last umpteen years might be reluctant to change. Then there are the new business cards you've got to print as well.
Where this will be a success (and I currently fit into this demographic) is people who make a lot of international calls. The calling cards might be cheaper however the faff of having to manually punch in the number you are dialling is a pain. Google Voice removes that hassle.
If you get an invite it is worth checking out but bare in mind it's yet one more piece of your life entombed in the Googleplex data banks.