I got a hands-on demo of this simple, but useful feature from Gmail Product Manager Keith Coleman a half hour ago, when he had me send a text message to his iPhone from my Gmail account.
I simply entered his 10-digit area code and phone number in the chat window, and it offered me the option to send an SMS. I clicked on it, entered "Keith" as my contact, entered "This feature is cool" (like a geek) and hit Enter. I'm in Connecticut; Coleman is in Mountain View, Calif. He received my message in 3 seconds.
Coleman was a brand-new contact for me, so I had to enter his number to begin the SMS process. Users can SMS their existing Gmail chat contacts by opening a chat window and selecting the option to send an SMS.
Once you enter their phone numbers, it will save the digits in your contact entries. This means that when those contacts go offline, the chat window will give you the option to switch to SMS. Coleman said:
""This basically came from people saying, 'It's frustrating that when my friend goes offline, I can't chat with them,' so we decided to build something to address it.""
There's more to the efficiency quotient. Usually, when you send an SMS from your computer to a phone, it shows up on the phone as a short code, or a super long number that changes all of the time.
When you send an SMS from Google chat, you get assigned a unique phone number for every pair of Gmail user and phone contact. That means that every time you SMS a contact, that contact will see the same number. That means the contact can add that to their contact lists on their phone. Coleman explained it thus:
""Let's say a month down the road, I'm at an airport and I know you're in front of your computer and I want to have you look up my flight information. I can just text you at that number, and it will show up right in your Gmail account.""
Note, this Gmail Labs feature applies to U.S. phone numbers only. Now word yet on when it will be available internationally.
While Coleman claimed Google has no master plan regarding this incredible swath of Gmail features that have rolled out from Labs or via default in 2008, it's no secret Gmail is becoming a rich communications and collaboration tool.
Even better, most of these features will appeal to consumers and business users alike. This duality should make Gmail an attractive Web mail product for users looking to defect from Microsoft or Yahoo Web mail.