Google Voice, Grand Central Reborn as a Voice Service, But….

GoogleVoice.logo Yesterday’s announcement of Grand Central’s rebirth as Google Voice drew a lot of attention from both the mainstream media and blogger world. In following the IP-based communications world over the past three years, I have come to believe that the only potential real time conversation service provider challenger to Skype could come from Google. It has huge user registration numbers at a world class scale; however, its primary business is built around how many ways can one drill down within Search and then offer contextually relevant advertising. On the other hand, they appear to be looking to complement search-embedded activities, such as Search within GMail, with real time conversation capabilities.

For instance the recently launched GMail Voice and Video chat allows users to migrate to real time conversations directly off an email message. Great in the context of building a dialogue out of an email’s subject and content. I’ve tried it and it works but have not had reason to use it in my everyday activity; on the other hand, if I  find reason to use it, it’s there and easy to launch. A great example of voice-enabling a conversation in the context of an ongoing dialogue.

Show me a platform that is not supported by Google’s GTalk chat offering. Almost every PC and mobile device I receive for evaluation is supported by GTalk. Yet, I only have about ten contacts on GTalk and may get a message once every week or two. There’s a reason Alec Saunders came out recently to say “Ditching all IM Systems except Skype!”. On the other hand, GTalk is there; it’s handy if someone contacts me via GTalk.

While Google Voice lists its entire feature set here, Kim Peterson’s post, “Free long-distance? Oh yeah, Google;s going there”, on the Topstocks blog at Microsoft’s Money Central, highlights the the top ones:

In a nutshell, here’s what you’ll be able to do with the free program:

1. Get a single phone number that routes calls to your cell, work and home phones simultaneously.

2. Call numbers in the U.S. for free. And call internationally for ridiculously low rates — I’m talking 2 cents a minute to China.

3. Get your voicemail transcribed into e-mail or text messages.

4. Make free conference calls.

5. Get your voicemail on the Web.

Mainstream media, however, could only focus on how Google Voice would provide competition to eBay’s Skype. New York Times’ Miguel Helft starts out with:

Google stepped up its attack on the telecommunications industry on Thursday with a free service called Google Voice that, if successful, could chip away at the revenue of companies big and small, like eBay, which owns Skype, telephone companies and a string of technology start-up firms.”

Ryan Singel at Wired’s Epicenter:

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.

Further down the same article, Ben Lilienthal, now general manager of audio services for Citrix Online – and a Skype partner for full service audio conferencing, “isn’t convinced that businesses will move to the service very soon”, Ben went on to say:

“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?”

Many reporters and bloggers had a chance to upgrade their Grand Central service to Google Voice yesterday. However, being a Canadian I never acquired a Grand Central number for the same reason as fellow Canadian and Fonolo CEO Shai Berger:

….. this problem is not unique. Many similar services don’t extend into Canada. It’s still hard to get a Canadian Skype-In number for example. Ooma has the same problem and when I spoke to some senior people at Ooma last year they cited complicated regulatory issues (including a word I hadn’t heard before: “homologation“. Always like learning a new word). I don’t expect Grand Central/Google Voice to address this any time soon and I don’t hold it against them — the extra hassle is probably not worth it in the early stage of the game.

But Shai also gives a more generic reason for not being a user of Grand Central:

That 2nd item is a bigger issue because it effects everyone, not just Canadians. Our mental model for interacting with phones is that “if you called me from number X” I can hit redial to call you back. (Or I can store that number in my address book for later.) To fix this we either have to change user behavior (tough) or spoof the caller-ID (technically doable but quasi-legal). The only Voice 2.0 company I know of that has solved this problem is Truphone, which does transmit your Truphone number as to the destination. [Author’s note: SkypeOut also provides callerID using either your Skype Online number or your “Skype registered” mobile phone number.]

But there’s also a user interface issue when you look at how a call is placed. Further down in Kim’s post (and similarly described in the NYT post referenced above):

Here’s how it works: You call into your voice mail on Google Voice, and from there you get transferred to a dial tone. You can call any number at that point [author’s italics]. You also have a central Web site that will show your voice mails and manage your account.

So I have to call one number in order to call the number I want (and, at that point, there’s probably no linkage to my device’s native address book), eh?

And, finally, Om Malik points out a few issues, including how users will pay for international calls:

Just as a warning, the upgrade to Google Voice won’t allow you to take your Grand Central address book with you, since the new system uses Google Contacts. In addition, the service doesn’t work with those of you who have Google Apps accounts; you’ll need Gmail accounts. Lastly, they make you use Google Checkout to pay for international minutes. No thanks — I am happy paying with PayPal and/or credit cards. [author’s italics]

Let’s go back to Skype (and iSkoot):

  1. I want to locate a phone number (or SkypeID) in my native mobile handset address book, hit the green “Call” button on my mobile phone and launch a voice call. Real simple UI here. On a mobile device, such as BlackBerry or Nokia N-series, I can do this with iSkoot for making both Skype-to-Skype or SkypeOut calls.
  2. I have 14 years invested in my current office and mobile phone numbers. I’m not ready to make any changes. iSkoot, on my BlackBerry, and Truphone on both BlackBerry and iPhone work with each device’s existing phone number.
  3. SkypeOut (and iSkoot, when making SkypeOut calls from a BlackBerry or Nokia N-Series S60 phone) provides my mobile phone number as a callerID. A party who needs to return my call can simply click on the number and reach me. (and, if in my native address book, readily see who has called).
  4. With Skype I can make payments via PayPal or directly on my credit card.

While I will try Google Voice once they expand to supporting Canadian numbers, its modus operandi certainly does not come up to Skype’s standards for a truly user friendly calling experience. On the other hand its call screening, call management and voicemail handling features certainly provide some new challenges for Skype to watch out for.

Bottom line: today we all look for competition in the wireless carrier and mobile smartphone markets. But there are key differentiating features. It’s healthy to see two players such as Skype and Google, both with world scale user bases, in the real time conversation space. But there are differences, in the individual end users will adopt whatever provides the most convenience for his/her individual needs.

Full disclosure: the author has Bell Canada lines for his home office, including fax, requirements while using Rogers Home Phone for family voice calling. He also uses Skype for most of his business conversation requirements, especially long distance and international calling. Just as different smartphones meet different user needs, we’re probably going to find that many of us need multiple services for all our real time conversation needs.

Finally let’s look at one more slide from Skype President Josh Silverman’s analyst presentation earlier this week:


Google has a little bit of work to do to round out an equivalent ecosystem.

Check out Kim’s post for links to several other bloggers’ comments as well.

Andrew Hansen: Skype makes a small ripple, but no Splash with new VM features.

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About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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