Google wades into telephony with Google Voice

Google has unveiled its plans to offer a free unified phone service in a move that is likely to cause palpitations in the ailing telecommunications sector.

The ‘Google Voice’ service will offer users a universal phone number capable of routing calls through to mobile devices, landlines and desk phones. It will also offer voicemail functionality with a feature that transcribes messages, converting them to text and rendering them searchable as well as sending them to a user’s inbox.

The service will also offer directory assistance and low-cost domestic international calls – a direct challenge to VoIP prodviders like Skype. Pricing for the UK has not been revealed, but calling the UK from the US will cost just two cents a minute.

"It’s not that we are replacing your phone, we are giving it the ability to work better," explained Craig Walker, Google’s real-time communications product manager.

Walker was formerly the co-founder of GrandCentral, a company that used VoIP to link phone numbers together and forms the key technology behind Google Voice. Google bought the company in 2007 for an estimated $50 million, a seemingly left-field acquisition that had many analysts scratching their heads.

One of the main business benefits touted by unified communications vendors is single identity; that is, one number that will ring through to multiple devices, such as an office desk phone, mobile or home landline: exactly the service offered by Google Voice.

Further integration with email, calendar, contact book listings and IM clients could see Google become a heavily disruptive player in the unified communications (UC) sector, particularly if the company sticks to its ad-driven revenue model.

From an enterprise perspective, Google’s ‘consumerisation’ of UC, in the same way Skype ‘consumerised’ VoIP, could remove some of the confusion afflicting the technology, opening the way for increasing competitive enterprise offerings from companies like Alcatel-Lucent, Siemens and Nortel. Then again, it could render their services obsolete.

Walker declined to reveal how many people had signed up for the Google Voice service, and was hesitant to suggest where the technology would proceed.

"There are a host of things we’re working on [but] we want to get the core telephony from GrandCentral to Google Voice, to get that ironed out first.”

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