There has been much buzz recently about google buying Grand Central, which was started as a free service that helped people organize their phone numbers, route calls, record messages, set distinctive ring tones, and much more… for free. Upon hearing the news, I immediately signed up for an account and began to test things out…
The first thing I had to do was sign up for an invite since the beta was not open without one. You had to specify your name, email address, and the area code you wanted your phone number in. 12 days later, I received my invitation to sign up for Google’s new Grand Central. The following are screenshots of the account creation process. There were some nice options which allowed you to quickly find a local number in the area that you were requesting which incorporated a nice google maps interface, and allowed you to select from a list of available numbers.
Doing a little bit of digging, it looks like all of the local access numbers are being provided by Level3, which has numbers available just about everywhere.
Once you’ve got your number selected, the activation step is actually done via telephone. You specify which of the numbers you want to be contacted at, and they call you and ask you to enter your confirmation code which they provide to you on the screen. You also get a chance to set your “Spoken Name” and “Personal Greeting” after confirming your account. These are used while handling inbound calls in the future.
At this point the account activation process has been completed, and you’re dropped into your main inbox. This is where you can see any messages, or recorded calls that you’ve got on your account:
I decided to try it out without reading much more, so I picked up my cell phone, and called the number that I had picked. To my surprise, it recognized my number as a number I had bound to my account on setup, and told me I could go ahead and setup my personal account information or listen to my messages. Immediately I recognized a problem: There was no user authorization required to access account details! It is not terribly difficult to spoof the originating number of your call, and quickly access the messages and settings of someone else’s account. There may be options to turn on a security feature somewhere in the settings, but by default it seemed to be off.
I then picked up my VoIP phone which I had not bound to my account in any way, and called the Google-provided number. I was prompted to give my name, and was then informed that Grand Central would attempt to find the party that I was calling. My cell phone, and home phone (which I had bound to my account) rang simultaneously. I answered the cell phone, and was greeted with a message telling me that there was an inbound call from “spoken name” and that I had the following options:
1.) Accept the call
2.) Send caller to voicemail
3.) Send caller to voicemail, and listen in
4.) Accept and record the call
When I selected “Accept and record the call” both parties hear “Voice Recording Enabled” and are dropped into the call. So don’t figure on using this feature without the other party knowing. The only other nice feature that I like is the ability to send a caller to voicemail while listening in. If you hear something interesting while they’re leaving the message, you can break into the call!
After leaving a message, or recording the call the message shows up on your main inbox:
The interface is nice and easy to navigate. You can quickly add the contact information for unknown callers, add pictures, add them to contact groups, etc. The interface provides you with quick access to forward the voicemail/recorded message to others via email, and even quickly post the content to a website via a nice little flash player object. You can even download and save the message as an MP3 for playback and local archiving purposes.
Needless to say, I was quite impressed so far. Then I began to take a closer look at some of the features. There are far too many to cover here in detail, but here are a few that I found quite impressive:
With the click of a checkbox, you can send any number to the “SPAM” voicemail box, where they will hear the “number not in service” message. There is also a community-based spam filter which allows users to identify abusive telemarketers for example so that everyone can benefit from the community filters.
Receive email, and SMS messages when a voicemail is left for you.
Ring Different Phones / Greetings
Set and configure groups to ring different phones based off of time of day, who is calling, etc. You can even specify you own personalized greetings for each one of your groups that you specify. You can specify ring hold music so the caller can hear music while you’re being contacted. There are plenty of ways you can have fun with this..
The concept is simple – Add a WebCall button to your website or blog for people to call you. Your number stays private and you can use all the normal GrandCentral screening, blocking, forwarding, and other features that put you in control. The WebCall button takes care of connecting the call to you after getting the caller’s number.
Change phones in the middle of a call. To switch from one phone to another without hanging up, just press the (*) button while you’re talking. Your other phones will ring and you can pick up the one you want and hang up the other. The caller won’t even hear the switch.
Easily click on any of the Address book entries, or a missed call number, and they will setup both legs of the call for you – ringing your phone 1st, and then the other party once you pick up. You can specify what number this call will originate from, and they will forge that number during call setup so that it actually looks like the call originated from that number, even though that leg of the call was established by them. I did find one issue here: they won’t be providing this feature free forever:
With Click2Call, your GrandCentral number will show as the Caller ID. During our Beta period these outbound calls are free, but will have a small per minute charge in the future.
They provide a slimmed down mobile interface where you can access your voicemail, contact lists, and even initiate the calls with just a click. I tried all of the features out from my Treo (700wx), and everything worked flawlessly!
The list of features continues far beyond what I had expected. You can import your Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo, CSV contacts quickly and easily. Ask to re-record greetings through the website where you can specify where you should be contacted via phone for the recording to take place. Many pre-built code snippets for integrating features with your website. With Google now running the show, I expect even better things in the future.
What is really amazing to me is that they are able to offer all of these services including a local number *free of charge*! This is going to be terrible for the traditional telcos that charge premiums for these exact same services (often not implemented nearly as well). Of course I can see Google taking advantage of targeted localized advertising, and integrating one more piece of Google into users everyday Internet use. Overall I’m quite impressed, and this will likely be one of Google’s services that I will continue to use.