Skype and Facebook could have a substantial new competitor on their hands, if Google's new Gmail phone-calling service keeps attracting a substantial number of users.
"Over 1,000,000 calls placed from Gmail in just 24 hours! Thanks to everyone using this new feature," read an Aug. 27 note on Google's official Twitter feed.
The Gmail application requires Google's voice and video plug-in, which can be downloaded here. Upon activation, Gmail users can click a "Call Phone" tab, opening a window with a virtual keypad. Those with a Google Voice phone number will find their Gmail calls display that number as their outbound caller ID.
"We're rolling out this feature to U.S.-based Gmail users over the next few days," Robin Schriebman, a Google software engineer, wrote in an Aug. 25 posting on the Official Google Blog. "If you're using Google Apps for your school or business, then you won't see it quite yet. We're working on making this available more broadly-so stay tuned."
By the evening of Aug. 26, the "Call Phone" tab seemed to be appearing on more and more Gmail accounts. Via the service, calls to certain countries-including landlines in France and Britain-will cost 2 cents per minute. On the high end of the scale, a call to Cuba will cost 98 cents. A complete list of rates can be found here.
Gmail's phone success would present a significant challenge to Skype at a moment when the latter company is preparing its IPO. Although Skype's base of paying customers is relatively small, and financial margins narrow, the company's 560 million registered users also make it a formidable contender to any upstarts. Despite that, Google's built-in brand recognition-not to mention Gmail's free calls to landlines in the United States and Canada, something not offered by Skype-could allow it to rapidly build market share.
However, Google has also remained quiet about when it intends to expand the service to other countries. "We don't have anything to announce about an international rollout today," a Google spokesperson told eWEEK Aug. 26, "but we're looking forward to bringing localized versions to more people in the future."
Other analysts see Google's latest application as a play against Facebook.
"We assume Google's ulterior motive is less about disrupting the telecommunications industry (it will still pay termination fees to telcos) and more about driving engagement within Gmail and its social networking activities, to better compete with social networks such as Facebook," Goldman Sachs analyst James Mitchell wrote in an Aug. 26 research note, as reprinted on Fortune's Website.
If Google is indeed angling to make Gmail more of a one-stop social hub, trust that Facebook-along with Skype and any other social-networking and communications companies-are already preparing their response.