New Google Voice threatens just about everybody

Now we know why Google chose this moment to settle its suit with Judah Klausner while at the same time deciding to block Inner Fence's Infinite SMS texting service. Google launched Google Voice, an update to GrandCentral, the online voicemail and call management system Google snapped up in 2007. The new free service provides visual voicemail, ala Klausner, and Infinite SMS-like texting. But it also offers free Internet calling, providing strong competition to Skype and other phone companies.

Google Voice is available first to GrandCentral users but will be rolled out to the general public "soon," says Google in the Official Google Blog. The service has a long list of features, including:

* One number call management, in which users can use one number but have up to six others ring simultaneously, including home, work, cellpone, etc.;

* Ability to make free U.S. calls and almost free (about 2 cents per minute, paid via Google Checkout) calls internationally;

* Automated voicemail transcriptions, which can then be searched via the Google Voice inbox;

* Call screening, enabling users to hear voice mails while they're being left;

* Conference calling of up to six people, including the ability to be on the phone, receive a call and conference in the new caller;

* Robust forwarding rules, enabling users to force calls to voice mail, a cellphone or a business phone depending on time of day, day of week or caller; and

* Integration with Gmail contacts.

Analysts in this New York Times report say Google Voice is positioned to compete against a host of incumbents, including the phone companies, call management start-ups and especially Skype.

While inexpensive Internet calls have become commonplace, Google’s potential to reach a mass audience could make a difference, some analysts said. “I would consider Google to have the potential to change the rules of the game because of their ability to bring all kinds of people into their new tools from their existing tools,” said Phil Wolff, the editor of Skype Journal.

Google will not charge a fee for Google Voice, although it says it plans to subsidize the new service via international calling fees and not advertising--at least not yet. But some predict that move can't be too far off. As this InformationWeek article says:

According to [Google Senior Product Manager Craig] Walker, Google doesn't have a current plan to monetize the service. His mission, he said, was to make Google users happy. Google Voice may also make some telecom companies happy by increasing the use of billable SMS messages. However, just as ads have found their way into other Google properties where they hadn't existed previously, ads may find a home in Google Voice in a year or two.

And just think how adding voicemail and voice calling data to the overall personal blueprint Google holds on each of its users will enhance its ability to track and target users with ads. Yes, Google Voice may offer strong competition to the likes of Skype and other Internet phone service firms, but it also could end up providing a new Google-flavored threat to user privacy, something privacy advocates quoted in the Times article say they fully expect.

"It raises two distinct problems," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "In the privacy world, it is increased profiling and tracking of users without safeguards. But the other problem is the growing consolidation of Internet-based services around one dominant company."

But all that will be difficult to discern, at least until Google opens up Google Voice to the general public. To receive notification when that happens, sign up with Google.

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