Not so long ago, email, IM, VoIP, and video chat were all fairly independent. You had email at one end of your desktop world and voice at the other. But then Skype took the lead in blending voice with IM while Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and others embedded video chat within their messaging tools. Clearly, the trend is toward unified, converged messaging, where you’d have all text, audio, and video communications in a single interface. Skype is still missing email (never mind cloud-based communications storage), and Google still hasn’t brought its Talk app (IM and PC-to-PC voice) under the Gmail umbrella. But now, with the arrival of the voice and video chat plug-in for Gmail, Google arguably seizes the lead in free converged communications services by allowing users to call land and mobile phones straight from their Gmail page—for free (at least through the end of this year).
What can you expect when stepping into Google’s latest freebie? Let’s find out.
A Little Clarification
First off, if you see this article and rush to install the Gmail add-on and find that the plug-in is nowhere to be found, don’t panic. As of this writing, we’ve found several users who haven’t seen the installation overlay described below. As Google noted in its announcement, “We’re rolling out this feature to U.S. based Gmail users over the next few days, so you’ll be ready to get started once “Call Phones” shows up in your chat list (you will need to install the voice and video plug-in if you haven’t already).” So just be patient.
The “Call phones from Gmail” plug-in widget (we’ll call it Call Phones for lack of an official name) must be installed in order to have voice functionality within Gmail. Lest there be any confusion, Call Phones is not Google Voice, although the two can intersect. We’ll circle back to Google Voice in a bit.
Installation in Gmail
When you bring up Gmail for the first time after Call Phones hits your Gmail account, you’ll see an overlay alert pointing to the new “Call phone” link on the left navigation bar. When you click the overlay’s “Try it now” button, you’ll see a grayed-out dial pad appear in the bottom-right corner of Gmail and the usual terms acceptance and install button in another overlay. This done, you proceed to the “Install voice and video chat” screen. This installs Google’s audio/video communications browser framework—the same framework you install with Google Voice. This similarity originally led us to think that there would be more cross-functionality between the two services, but there presently is not.
The only hitch in this installation process is that completion of the Google voice and video chat installer will prompt you to restart all browsers before its functionality becomes enabled. So if you’re like us and tend to have a dozen or so tabs open at any given time, this restart can be a pain.
Confirm Your Settings
When your browser restarts and you return to Gmail, you’ll be prompted once or twice to install browser add-ons. Click through to enable the plug-ins. With this done, you’ll likely land at the Gmail Settings screen under the Chat tab. Use the pull-down menus to select your preferred camera, microphone, and speaker devices. In the screen grab above, you can see that we haven’t plugged in our webcam yet, which is fine. Obviously, Call Phones doesn’t require a camera. As does Google, we strongly recommend leaving echo cancellation checked.
It’s interesting that right under the Voice and video chat section there’s a Google Voice section that allows you to enable or disable outbound voice calling from Gmail with Google Voice. Yet when you click through the “Learn more” link, there’s no subsequent mention of Google Voice, only the Call Phones feature. So confusing. Come on, Google, just blend the two and get it over with.
The New Addition
If you don’t know it’s there, you might miss the new “Call phone” link tucked innocuously in the Chat section of Gmail’s left navigation bar. When you click the “Call phone” link, it spawns a dial pad widget in the bottom-right corner of your browser. Thankfully, Google doesn’t require users to type “+1” at the start of every call to a U.S. phone line as some other VoIP providers have done.
Notice the pop-out icon located next to the X symbol on the dial pad. This spawns the dial pad into a new window. We quickly fell into the habit of planting this alongside our Skype dialer on a secondary screen, leaving the open question of which would get used more in the months to come. Predictably, the pop-in link in the bottom-right of the dial pad window will snap the pad back into the bottom-right of its original browser window—unless you’ve already closed that window, in which case the dialer will go nowhere.
There are two tabs in the dial pad. The first is for the pad itself, but the second, which looks like a clock face, contains your call history. To the right of these tabs you may see a figure of $0.10. This is the amount of calling credit Google gives new users to persuade them to call other countries and see how the service sounds. With the pull-down menu, you can spawn new browser windows to your Google Voice history, calling rates, and add more credit to your Voice account.
Keep in mind that, unlike Skype, Call Phones is free for connections in the U.S. and Canada. This may change at any time after the end of 2010. Google has come out swinging at Skype’s international rates, as well. You can see in Google’s chart above some rate comparisons that look favorable for Google, but these numbers ignore the many bundle deals that Skype offers. In reality, for occasional and frequent calling to international locations, Skype is more affordable than Google lets on. Google may still have an edge in many cases, but it’s not a yawning gap.
Making the Call
When you want to make a call to any number from Gmail, you start by clicking the “Call phone” link in the left navigation bar and use the pop-up dial pad widget. In typical Google fashion, you can also start typing a contact name into the text entry field and the UI will provide a list of anyone in you Gmail Contacts list fitting that test. For example, if you type in “st,” Google will fill the pop-up list with all contacts containing “st” anywhere in their name, not just the first two characters. So “Stan Lee” would appear along with “Best Buy.” Unfortunately, the search results don’t include matches from your voice call history.
While on a dial pad-dialed call, all you see is the dial pad with a running counter for the call duration. When the call finishes, it leaves a conclusion box at the bottom of the browser window showing the time of the call along with a redial link. It doesn’t revert back to or spawn another dial pad. You need to keep hitting that “Call phone” link to bring up a new dial pad, which can result in a trail of finished call boxes along the bottom of your browser unless you close them.
You would think that Gmail would also have a shortcut for calling people straight from your Contacts, especially since you can see their phone numbers on your screen, but you can’t.
Back to Voice
We said earlier that there were some intersections between Call Phones and Google Voice. The two are clearly meant to work together, and perhaps Call Phones is merely a stealth method for Google to pump up its Voice user base, which still dramatically trails Skype. One of the advantages of having a Google Voice account and the free phone number that comes with it is that the people you call will have a Caller ID that identifies you specifically, not just the 760-705-8888 number that otherwise represents all Call Phones calls.
When you make a call with Call Phones, the session gets logged into your Google Voice history. For those who keep a running log of their daily phone calls for business the ability to add notes to each call that then get saved into your permanent Voice record can be a huge plus.
Google Does Dickens
For those of you new to Google Voice who might be wondering if the speech-to-text functionality works in real life, did a little test with the opening of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, using a Skype account to call our Google Voice number and leave a message. We used a cheap but good-enough-for-VoIP Microsoft headset and replayed the voice message to make sure of the recording quality. Overall, it sounded on par with a solid cell phone connection, and human listeners had no trouble understanding the words. Google Voice obviously had some issues. No doubt, this is part of why Google hasn’t bundled Voice into its business-oriented Apps offerings...yet.
Voice Installation in iGoogle
Google advertises that voice and video chat works in iGoogle as well as Gmail. We’d hoped that this would also mean that Call Phones was accessible from iGoogle (and orkut), but it’s not. The closest you get is a widget and link on the left nav bar to Google Voice. Because of the overlap between Call Phones and Voice, here are some notes on Voice installation in iGoogle:
Actually, we expected that installing the Google voice and video chat plug-in under Gmail would automatically result in the feature being available in iGoogle, but the widget was nowhere to be seen. Instead, we used the “Add stuff” link at the top of iGoogle, searched for “voice,” and added the top app (Google Voice) that appeared. Interestingly, the resulting widget that appeared in our iGoogle home page was nothing but a blank box. Clicking on the “Google Voice” link at the top of the widget takes you out of iGoogle and into the Google Voice inbox. Of course, if all anyone needs is this little link, then do your iGoogle page a favor and minimize the widget into a more space-efficient bar. You’ll also see a “Google Voice” link on your left nav bar, but clicking this only brings up a full-window version of that empty widget, which is even more annoying.
A Game Changer?
In the end, despite its somewhat haphazard implementation, it’s clear that Google’s Call Phones feature is strong. We found the voice quality just as good as Skype to land lines and mobile phones, and if Google opts to keep U.S. and Canada calls free in order to swell the Google Voice user ranks, then we’d expect Skype to have a serious problem on its hands. As with so many of its other services, Google could give basic calling away for free and upsell a percentage of users to associated premium services, particularly for businesses. While it’s hard to describe today’s VoIP industry as “settled,” Google now looks to be shaking up the establishment in a very positive direction.