Internet search engine giant Google has purchased Grand Central communications, a free phone routing service allowing you to use a free local phone number for all of your calls. The new product has just been re-launched and is now available for sign up.
The service, which is currently available in limited beta form for a small number of users, enables you to personally manage all of your correspondence. If you have multiple phone numbers (e.g., home, work and mobile), you can get one phone number that you can set to ring for all, some, or none of your phones, based on who's calling. As a consequence, your phone number is tied to you, and not to your location or job.
The service also gives you one central voice mailbox. You can listen to your voicemails online or from any phone, forward them to anybody you wish, add the caller to your address book or block a caller as spam. You can also listen to your voicemail messages from your phone whilst they are being recorded, or switch a call from your mobile phone to your desk phone and back again. The potential here for making life easier is endless, but there are also opportunities for creative misuse.
When you create a Grand Central account you can pick any area code you wish. So, if you have a colleague across the country that you are in constant conversation with, and are sick of paying long-distance rates to speak to them, you can make a Grand Central account in your local area code and stop making long-distance calls. Similarly if your mobile phone tariff lets you receive unlimited calls from a certain number, you could feasibly add your Grand Central number to that list and receive unlimited free mobile calls.
Grand Central was founded two years ago by Craig Walker and Vincent Paquet, former senior executives at VoIP firm DialPad Communications, which was itself acquired by Google's rival, Yahoo!, in 2005. The idea for the Grand Central service was borne out of Walker's frustration upon landing at a local airport and realising he needed to check three voicemail mail boxes - one for his mobile phone, another for work and one for his BlackBerry .
The company has been holding public tests on the Grand Central service for several months. Google have claimed that the services' current users will continue to enjoy an uninterrupted service. A limited number of invitations to receive Grand Central unified numbers will also be available for users who sign up at http://www.grandcentral.com/. Controversially there is still some speculation as to how well the Grand Central service can be integrated into the 'Googletalk' package.
Internet-based phone services are a major growth area at the moment. Ebay-owned communications company Skype, a pioneer in the internet phone market, has signed up more than 200 million users for its free or low-cost phone services globally. Newer names in the field include venture-backed firms Jajah, Jangl, Jaxtr and Rebtel, which together have signed up millions of users in the past year.