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Telecoms chase after Google Voice's innovative calling features

August 20, 2009 |  1:00 pm


Google engineers show off the Voice Web app. Credit: Septillion via Flickr

Google's pickup of Grand Central, a little Web startup with big ideas for revolutionizing phone use, is starting to look pretty smart two years later. The recently revamped version called Google Voice is beginning to spread to curious consumers in a similar fashion as Gmail's closed beta helped to conquer a sector of the Web-based e-mail sector.

As more people get hip to Google Voice's perks of getting free voice mail transcription and e-mail alerts, having one number ring all of your phones and scoring free calls and text messages, some telecoms are quickly working behind the scenes to catch up.

Last night, Vonage, a voice-over-IP Internet service, took steps to chip away at some of Google Voice's most compelling features. The company announced voice mail transcription and unlimited calling in the U.S. and to more than 60 countries with a $25 monthly plan. For comparison, Google Voice offers unlimited U.S. calling for free and a variable but competitively priced per-minute international rate.

Some companies are beginning to switch over to Google Apps from Microsoft Office (even the California state government is discussing similar plans). Perhaps to combat ...

... businesses from dropping enterprise telephone infrastructures in favor of cheap calling plans and Google Voice integration, Sprint is beefing up its business calling network.

A new product called Sprint Mobile Integration gives employees a single phone number and voice mail system that connects desks with cellphones. That's "because each employee's desk and mobile phones are virtually the same," wrote Sprint spokeswoman Stephanie Greenwood in an e-mail.

Like Google Voice, Mobile Integration also offers "seamless mid-call transfers," Greenwood wrote, for when you start a conversation at your desk and want to continue without interruption on your cellphone while you grab a cup of coffee next door. Sprint sticks with traditional calling plans but offers unlimited calls between workers within the company.

Glass is a piece of hardware that's converging the stationary phone and the cellphone in a very different way. Similar to the Verizon Hub, the product by Cloud Telecomputers gives home phones a visual interface. Glass lets you take calls from your cellphone using Bluetooth -- like you would connect to your car stereo. The hardware is built on Google's Android mobile operating system.

While a portion of telecoms are finding ways to ape and innovate beyond Google Voice's free features, AT&T has been accused of taking another approach -- blocking users from installing Google Voice on the carrier-exclusive iPhone. AT&T has denied the claim, but the Federal Communications Commission's probe into the accusation persists.

Meanwhile, Google is building a more advanced version of its Voice mobile Web app -- accessible on any phone with a browser. Telecoms have to be just about the only ones not looking forward to that.

-- Mark Milian