Will free phone calls for Gmail users spur another internet revolution? And how can your small business benefit?
By Kartik Ram
Google is adding voice calling to Gmail, a disruptive innovation that may persuade more people to get on the internet telephony bandwagon. As I write, barely two days into its launch, there’s been an exponential surge in call volume. “Over 1 million calls placed in just 24 hours! Thanks to everyone using this new feature," said the company in a tweet.
Unveiled in August, this voice service enables Gmail subscribers to make calls from their PCs to landlines and mobile numbers worldwide. This service may also cause established telecom service providers to pack their bags as phone calls are rapidly approaching a marginal cost of zero. Having been a beta tester for this product and many other Google “firsts”, I am bullish that voice on Gmail will enjoy massive adoption and customer kudos. The best part? Call quality is excellent. Watch out Skype and Vonage – your loyal customer is about to get Googled.
A caveat, however, is that this service is only available within the US. But Google is planning to roll out the service to other regions in time. I am not keeping my fingers crossed in the UAE, as the TRA is mired in a host of “more pressing” priorities around national security.
Google’s no stranger to mashing up email, search, and voice phone systems, as should be obvious from its prior ventures like Google Voice and GOOG-411. Now the company is merging some of its voice systems into Gmail, with the addition of a direct outgoing call feature that will support free US and Canada calls.
The way it works is rather simple: once you’ve got the Gmail voice chat plug-in installed, clicking on "call phone" from Gmail’s chat menu bar will bring up a keypad, where you can make both international and domestic calls. Google’s not promising anything long term, but until the end of 2010 at least, you’ll be able to call anyone in the US or Canada for free with the system. Users can also make international calls for a low fee starting at $0.02 per minute to landlines in the UK, France, Germany, China, Taiwan or Japan with mobile phones at higher rates.
I suppose they could work out an advertising model with voice ads playing until the other party answers the phone, but chances are they’ll have to start charging, just like SkypeOut. Can you use it to sneak free phone minutes from your mobile? Sadly, no. In order to use Gmail phone calls, you need to download a browser plug-in, and most mobile browsers won’t support it. However, this may end up being part of the building blocks Google needs to support new phones like the HTC EVO with front-facing cameras for video chat.
To promote Gmail calling, Google will be deploying Google Voice phone booths at airports and on campuses for travelers and students. But while Google is off to a great start with voice calling in Gmail, there are a few changes I’d like to see that would really put this service over the top.
Low calling rates are great, but one of Skype’s great features is its variety of calling packages that make it possible to make unlimited calls to other countries for a flat rate. You can also get region-specific plans such as the unlimited Europe plan or unlimited world, which lets you call over 40 countries for just $14.99 per month. Packaged plans would be a killer addition for people who need to call specific countries or regions on a regular basis.
There’s a whole world of Gmail users out there who would likely use this service, and Google has hinted that an international roll out is coming. But even if you’re a US based user, it would be a great advantage to know you could use Gmail’s new calling feature no matter if you happened to be elsewhere in the world.
Google’s new voice calling service is a great way to bring even more functionality to your Gmail inbox, but just a few more tweaks and voice calling in Gmail could be the ultimate VoIP service. I remain hopeful that UAE wakes up to free VOIP services in the near future.
Kartik Ram is the Dubai-based Senior Vice President for One97 Communications, an Intel Capital backed telecom enterprise. A serial entrepreneur, Kartik has been a founding executive at leading Silicon Valley start-ups. He holds an MBA from the London Business School.