If you’ve been following the evolution of Google’s Voice product, you had to know something big was coming. Originally launched in March of 2009, Google Voice was initially offered on an invite-basis only, yet for a free service, invitees were treated to some pretty amazing features.
First on the list was the ability to obtain a free local number to associate with your Google Voice account. Doing so allowed users granular control of how to handle incoming calls. Users could specify routing instructions for specific incoming numbers, establish rules on what numbers to ring when calls came in, powerful features like text transcription of voice mails that could be delivered via SMS or email, and that’s just a few examples.
Recently, in June of this year, Google opened the service up, making it available to anyone in the USA with a Google account. Consequently, some users have been unable to secure local numbers within their own area codes as a flood of new user sign-ups inevitably occurred. As of a few days ago, Google Gmail users began noticing an interesting new feature in their Gmail sidebar.
Mixed into the “chat” area is an innocuous “call phone” option that for most people, probably would have gone unnoticed. Click it though, and you’d see a call interface with number-pad appear, prompting you to call someone.
There is a browser plug-in that you will need to install, however it’s fairly quick and painless. After restarting your browser, you can begin making calls directly from within your browser; definitely an improvement over Skype, which requires a separate app window to initiate. In my testing, the Google Voice calls were clear and sharp, comparable to Skype and the VOIP services offered by AT&T or Verizon.
There was no drama getting the service up and running, it simply uses the default speakers and microphone it finds present on your system, however if you want to specify that Google Voice use a particular piece of hardware (a headset for instance), those options are available under the “chat settings” within Gmail.
Unlike Skype, and this is an important distinction, calls are free in the US and Canada. So if you like free, and really who doesn’t? And if you already use and love Gmail and Google Voice, you are going to love the new integration. One thing I’d like to see, is better hooks for calling existing Gmail contacts.
If you are an Android Smartphone user, you already know how crucial it is to keep your Gmail contacts up-to-date. Surprisingly, I did not find an easy way to dial any of my contacts from within Gmail. Perhaps that’s an upcoming feature Google will add along the way?
Considering how the company tends to roll-out improvements regularly as their services evolve, it wouldn’t surprise me to see further integration of Google Voice into other areas and products. Search result integration with Google Search feels like a natural next step, so expect to find “click to call” options popping up across other Google product offerings in the near future.