Can Google be your phone company? The answer is yes. I came to that conclusion after I met with Vincent Paquet, co-founder of GrandCentral (a company acquired by Google) and now a member of the Google Voice team. Earlier today he stopped by our office to show the mobile app versions of its Google Voice service for Blackberry and Android. Google recently announced that it was going to make the Voice service widely available to users in the U.S. soon.
These mobile versions of the Google Voice service will allow folks to not only manage their Google Voice connections –- to access and playback voice mails, send and receives SMS messages and read message transcripts — but also make local and long distance calls from mobile phones. The apps are fully integrated with each phone’s contacts, so you can call via Google Voice straight from your address book. This is how it works:
The mobile app for Google Voice uses the regular PSTN connection to place a call to Google Voice, which then places a call out to the person you need to reach. Since these calls (and SMS messages) originate from your Google Voice, they display your Google Voice number for the recipients. The service needs a data connection but it isn’t necessary to have a Wi-Fi connection to place and receive calls. The wireless number you buy from the cell phone company becomes less relevant.
The Google Voice app essentially reduces the cell phone carrier to a dumb pipe. While the BlackBerry application is interesting, it’s the Android application that shows that Google has bigger designs. I have been playing around with the Android App for about an hour or so and I can see the broader implications. When I was setting up the app, one of the options I was given: to make all calls through Google Voice. And that’s when I thought to myself: Oh! OH!
The app is so tightly enmeshed with Android OS and the address book and other apps, you hardly think that you’re using Google Voice. If Google bundles the Google Voice app with Android and sells it to makers of cheaper feature phones, it can start to insert itself between the consumers and wireless companies.
This “man in the middle” position is Google’s strength. The company has inserted itself between consumers and information via its search offering and profited handsomely from it. Why can’t it do the same with this voice offering? There is anecdotal evidence that some consumers might actually be happy paying for their mobile service by listening to advertisements.
To be sure, Google Voice isn’t the first such service. Truphone and a handful of other startups offer similar services, but Google’s sheer size is what makes this a pretty interesting move. They also have a mobile OS and connections with handset makers such as HTC to get serious traction. In this summer of a lot of hot air from Google — Google Wave and Google Chrome OS, for example — this is the first interesting product with larger implications. Suddenly the idea of Google as my phone company doesn’t sound so preposterous.