Just what is Google doing? If you read reports around the Web over the last 48 hours you'd have found proclamations declaring the death of Skype, the death of the landline, the end of mobile phone calls as we know it and a secretive subtext regarding next generation voice activated search honed by eavesdropping on our conversations.
Speak to Google, however, and it will simply say: "Actually, it is about free calls." So pray what is going on?
It all started on Wednesday evening. Following a flurry of rumours Google came out with an official blog post declaring 'Call phones from Gmail'. In essence what we were told is the instant messaging technology built into Gmail (Google Chat) would be expanding its VoIP functionality beyond calling Chat contacts to making real world calls to fixed and mobile phone numbers. These calls can be both national and international with national calls free until the end of the year and international calls starting from just $0.02 (see the full rates table).
If you think this sounds a lot like squashing Skype-style functionality into Gmail you wouldn't be far wrong, but what has really set tongues wagging (and wild theories flying) is that the service ties in with Google Voice. If you haven't heard of Google Voice don't be surprised, it is currently offered only in the US and - for the meantime - so are calls from Gmail (even if changing Gmail language settings to US makes it work temporarily).
In short Voice is a telecommunications service launched by Google in March 2009 and originating from the purchase of VoIP company GrandCentral in 2007 for $95m. The cool thing about Voice that sets it apart from rivals is it provides each user with a standard phone number which can receive inbound calls and forward them to the user's phone numbers. In other words: one standard number to unite all your phone numbers.
Similarities can be drawn with the UK's 0700 'Follow Me' system, though Voice can be set to receive calls on certain numbers at specific times of the day or even divert calls from specific callers to a set phone. Voice works on most handsets too since it can be accessed via a mobile phone browser, SMS messaging is free and voicemails can be listened to or received as transcribed emails.
If you think Voice sounds pretty good it is, but it does beg the larger question of why suddenly bringing this functionality directly into Gmail is being seen as such a big deal.