As it currently stands, Google’s recent addition of Public Switched Telephone Network voice calling to Gmail is much ado about nothing. While the feature works well enough and Google enjoyed a nice burst of voice traffic right after launch, I can only hope the move is the first step in a more ambitious Unified Communications play, rather than a plan solely to beat Skype or, even worse, yet another Google service thrown against the proverbial wall solely to see where an ad might stick.
Users who look at Skype strictly as a cheap tool may move their voice business to Gmail lbecause it is the cheapest or most convenient alternative. But for others, Skype is more than a phone. It’s a community, isolated in its little walled garden, where contacts both domestic and abroad are reachable for free via voice, video or text. Moving lock, stock and barrel to Gmail means losing access to those contacts.
I fall into the Skype-as-a-tool camp, so I’ve already packed my bags. I was a SkypeOut subscriber for years, but when Skype said it was axing my yearly rate, I got all huffy about it over Twitter, and then passive-aggressively let my subscription lapse when my term ended in August. I needed a new solution, and Google’s works well enough even if I’m forced to swallow massive compromises for the sake of a few free calls.
I was a happy GrandCentral user for the time before Google’s acquisition, but when porting that service to Google Voice, Google forced me to use a new Gmail account since it wouldn’t work in my Google Apps domain. Due to some odd behavior after the transition, the need for a Gmail account I wouldn’t use for anything else and services soon offered by my workplace that made Google Voice redundant, I stopped needing or using Google Voice.
But since the new Gmail voice calling features again only work in Gmail (not Google Apps), and Google integrated my old Google Voice number, it provided a new reason to revisit that dormant Gmail account. The feature works from a browser tab, just like Gmail, although it requires Adobe Flash and Google’s Voice and Video plug-in to make or receive calls. Although the latter can be tricky under certain circumstances to get installed (it’s another AppLocker-unfriendly application from Google), the service works well enough in the few days I’ve spent with it. I can call out from my PC to the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) and mobile phones, and those parties can call me at my Google Voice number, provided I set the service to route calls to Gmail.
But I never built a stable of Skype-only contacts, as I was using SkypeOut for PSTN calls 95 percent of the time. Without SkypeOut, I didn’t need Skype. But for those operating mostly within Skype’s walls, those who have collections of friends, family and associates all over the world whom they talk to and see via Skype, they probably aren’t going anywhere.
So perhaps Google shouldn’t be thinking competition with Skype, but rather thinking about collaborating with them. Instead of luring bandwidth-usurping, low-profit Skype customers to Gmail, perhaps Google could build a massive Skype Connect (http://bit.ly/bHZT2e) portal on their network, then charge its users a flat-rate fee for calls domestic, international and Skype.
I’ve speculated previously on grander visions for Google to build an interoperability hub for voice and particularly video (in the second half of http://bit.ly/aLkahw), and continue to think broad interoperability will be the key to success for Google when it comes to voice and video. And I think Google has coalesced enough pieces such as Gizmo5 and Global IP Solutions to take a stab at something truly interesting.
Competing with Skype for rock bottom Internet voice call pricing-well, that’s not interesting. And not a battle Google needs to wage.