Francisco: All the fuss about tweeting, texting, Facebook
pokes and various other cutting-edge forms of communication can
obscure the fact that old-fashioned telephone calls are still a
pretty effective way of conveying information.
But the 560 million people who are registered users of internet
phone pioneer Skype have never forgotten the value of talk, and now
it seems that Google is realizing it, too.
The web search company, which has already carved out a formidable
presence in the smartphone market with its Android operating system,
is now launching a calling service directly into its popular Gmail
After announcing the service Wednesday, Google is gradually rolling
it out to users this week across the US.
Initially limited to the US, the service is called Voice Calls from
Gmail and allows users to call any landline or mobile phone in the
country for free via their computer. Google said Thursday that even
the limited number of users who had access to the new feature
managed to place one million calls in the service's first 24 hours.
The company is not saying how long the free lunch will continue -
but for now it guarantees the no-cost calling until the end of the
year. Calls to international landlines are as cheap as two cents per
minute to Britain, France and Germany, though rates increase sharply
for calls placed to mobile phones in those countries.
The new service might have traditional telephone companies and Skype
quaking in their boots, but according to Goldman Sachs analyst James
Mitchell, they are not the primary target of Google's innovation.
"We assume Google's ulterior motive is less about disrupting the
telecommunications and more about driving engagement within Gmail
and its social-networking activities, to better compete with social
networks such as Facebook," Mitchell wrote in a note to investors.
Still, with Skype planning a $100-million initial public stock offer
later this year, the entrance of Google into the fray cannot be
Privacy advocates are also wary.
Google already transcribes voicemails for users of its separate
Google Voice service introduced earlier this year - and it may not
be long before Google starts selling keyword ads for your phone
calls the same way it does for your emails.
The new service is not as powerful as Google Voice, which gives
users a new phone number to which they can route all their existing
calls. Unlike Google Voice, which connects you phone to phone, the
new feature only connects computer to phone.
But analysts like David Pogue of The New York Times are already
counting the days until Google introduces Gmail calling as an app
for Android phones and iPhones.
"At that point you could for the first time in history make
unlimited free phone-to-phone calls," Pogue enthused.
PC World business guru Tony Bradley thinks that the growing number
of businesses that already use Google Apps for email, spreadsheets
and other office functions will find the new service both convenient
Even better, the service will quickly improve as it irons out the
bugs and benefits from competition.
"As Google and Skype and any other VoIP competitors gain momentum,"
Bradley noted, "I am sure there will be more innovation and
aggressive marketing to try and establish dominance."