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Google offers beta of free unified messaging service

Google has opened up GrandCentral, a free unified messaging and phone management service, to a limited beta.

Google has opened up a free unified messaging and phone management service to users of its Blogger platform.

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News of limited beta of its GrandCentral service is creating some buzz. GrandCentral has been mostly silent since the startup was bought by Google last June. Until now, it had been available only by private invitation.

GrandCentral offers users a free local phone number. Users can set their account so that incoming calls to their one phone number are directed to any of their phones – office, home or mobile – based on a set of rules, such as time of day and identity of the caller. GrandCentral also provides its users a centralized voicemail system that can be accessed by phone or online. The service can also email voicemails to its users.

Chris Silva, an analyst with Forrester Research, said GrandCentral mimics fixed-mobile convergence.

"It's sort of like a poor man's fixed-mobile convergence solution, allowing a single number reach to anybody, and allowing you to sort of dictate which calls to take, depending on who they're from," Silva said.

Fixed-mobile convergence has found some traction in companies with highly mobile workers who want to be reachable through one number wherever they are, he said.

GrandCentral also gives users a lot of flexibility with voicemail, allowing them to manage it much as they would manage an email inbox.

"You can dial into a traditional voicemail system they have and listen to your messages that way, but you can also go to their website and listen to them on your computer," Silva said. "Or you can forward them to your email. So there's a lot more flexibility offered in this free service than there is in similar services from anyone else. I think the biggest advance we've seen with that type of unified messaging has been the visual voicemail that at this point is only otherwise available on the Apple iPhone."

"It's really nice just being able to listen to messages out of order and being able to look at the caller ID information and see which message is important and which one you can ignore," said Irwin Lazar, principal analyst and program director for collaboration and convergence at Nemertes Research. "All of the features that they've offered so far make this hosted unified messaging for the masses. I'm just shocked it hasn't taken off yet."

GrandCentral has some other features that will appeal to companies interested in exploring unified messaging and unified communications. Its online voicemail inbox has a click-to-call feature and a call-switching feature that allow users to switch phones in the middle of a call. It also has a throwback feature that users haven't enjoyed since voicemail replaced answering machines: GrandCentral's "ListenIn" feature gives users the option of sending an incoming call to voicemail and then listening to the voicemail as it is recorded. If they decide the call is worth taking, they can click a button and talk to the caller before he finishes recording his message.

The potential market disruption that a free, Web-based service like GrandCentral represents is staggering. For instance, Google is using the technology to offer a free phone number and voicemail box to every homeless person in San Francisco. Homeless people can get their messages by dialing from any phone.

"The real benefit of GrandCentral -- it just separates out the phone number from the underlying service," Lazar said. "It doesn't tie you to any service. I suspect, from Google's standpoint, they view GrandCentral as a threat to wireless carriers and to existing phone companies. The reason a lot of people don't switch their service is that they don't want to have to worry about switching their phone number."

Craig Walker, senior product manager for Google and co-founder of GrandCentral, said Google is focused on the consumer market for now, but it seems almost inevitable that this service will find its way into businesses.

"Our view toward the enterprise was that consumers go to work and consumers are also consumers of enterprise phones," Walker said. "And if we could make a product that's useful for a consumer and they love it, then they'll eventually bring it to work. And we hope it's an opportunity down the road, but we're really not at a point to be able to talk about that right now."

Lazar said he thinks small businesses are the ultimate target market for GrandCentral, but Silva said he saw midsized companies as a potential market.

"I think adoption would go into medium-sized companies and to a certain extent into large enterprises," Silva said. "I think it's size agnostic. It's for highly mobile people who are trying to find a way to accomplish what an investment in fixed-mobile convergence by their employer would do."

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