Lots of excitement as Google finally unveiled the new version of GrandCentral, a company they bought almost 2 years ago. A number of people were starting to wonder if anything would become of the service that gained rapid popularity and rave reviews prior to the Google acquisition. Well, it looks like the wait was worth it. Techcrunch gushes: “It’s Very, Very Good.”
I absolutely love the concept and I was an early user (and managed to get a coveted “415″ area code number). Grandcentral stopped handing out new numbers after the acquisition, and still hasn’t resumed. TechCrunch reports that people have bidding up to $650 on eBay for GrandCentral numbers.
It’s still in transition
I just logged in at the grandcentral.com and it looks exactly the same:
At voice.google.com today you see:
But you can’t actually sign-in. They have quite a few new features coming which you can read about here. I’m definitely excited and looking forward to using it.
Why I’m not a user
Grandcentral did everything it claimed but I never became a regular user because: 1) I can’t get a Canadian number, and I don’t want to impose long distance charges on my Canadian contacts to reach me. 2) When I call, the outbound number displayed doesn’t match my GrandCentral number.
On the first item, this problem is not unique. Many similar services don’t extend into Canada. It’s still hard to get an Canadian Skype-In number for example. Ooma has the same problem and when I spoke to some senior people at Ooma last year they cited complicated regulatory issues (including a word I hadn’t heard before: “homologation“. Always like learning a new word). I don’t expect Grandcentral/Google Voice to address this any time soon and I don’t hold it against them — the extra hassle is probably not worth it in the early stage of the game.
That 2nd item is a bigger issue because it effects everyone, not just Canadians. Our mental model for interacting with phones is that “if you called me from number X” I can hit redial to call you back. (Or I can store that number in my address book for later.) To fix this we either have to change user behavior (tough) or spoof the caller-ID (technically doable but quasi-legal). The only Voice 2.0 company I know of that has solved this problem is Truphone, which does transmit your Truphone number as to the destination.
Spam Call Blocking
One of GrandCentrals’ features is blocking spam calls, which takes me to the second half of this post’s headline. Below is the first page of my current GrandCentral inbox. Every single one of those calls is spam (something about a car warranty), so that’s one feature that definitely needs some tuning. [Update: Consumerist has some coverage on the "car warranty robocalls" here.]
Adopting a new number is still the big barrier
I’m sure Google will tune and polish that feature as well as the others. But regardless, one barrier to adoption that will remain: you will have to adopt a new phone number, and train everyone you know to start calling you on that number.
Another approach to getting GrandCentral-like features that does not require a new number, is being pioneered by Skydeck. They’ve built some very impressive technology which lives both in the cloud and on your mobile device (also, sadly, not available in Canada).
On a closing note, people often ask me about how Fonolo compares to GrandCentral, er, Google Voice. Simple: Google Voice is about managing your inbound calls. Fonolo is about smarter outbound calls. In that sense they are very complimentary.
I just returned from a trip to California that included attending and presenting at the Emerging Communications Conference. I’ve hyped up this conference a few times on this blog, and I can say without hesitation that the show delivered on every level. Hats off to organizers!
One my favorite parts of the conference was the very active "back-channel" (powered by Twitter) that sizzled with comments, questions, jokes and tangential topics throughout each session. And it makes for a good read now, as well. After my presentation, I immediately checked the comments there and was pleased to find them very positive. What a great way to get immediate feedback to a speaker. (I will post my slides here shortly.)
Unfortunately, I only got to see a small sample of the presentations because of other meetings I had while in California. Hopefully, the videos will be available shortly. Some notes from sessions I did attend:
Stuart Henshall showed off Phweet and positioned it as an alternate way to connect with someone via voice spontaneously. I like to think of a contact list as ranked by "strength", i.e. how well do you know each other / how often have you spoken. For contacts who are strong connections, you typically just pick up the phone and dial. For medium connections, you might IM first: "Want to talk?". Its with the far end of that range: new or very weak connections, where you find room for innovation. The "call me" badges from Jaxtr, GrandCentral, etc were one attempt at this. (Anyone have data on whether that approach has seen real traction? I’ve never clicked one.) Phweet is an attempt to leverage Twitter to answer this challenge. As Stuart said: "The value is before the call." Consider: Both Phweet and Fonolo are alternate ways to start a call, and don’t involve dialing a phone number.
Phonetag launched Grid.com
The guys from Phonetag launched a "developer environment" for voice apps called Grid.com. James Siminoff: "What’s stopping us all from innovating is the contracting process with vendors… too much friction in the supply chain." They are offering "wholesale pricing" on SMS, VoIP, Whitepage look-ups, billing and (their personal specialty) voice transcription. They are partnering with Voxeo (for the IVR hosting I presume). Voice transcription is still one of the pricier building blocks in the Voice 2.0 toolset. It’s the main reasons services like PhoneTag, GotVoice, SpinVox and Jott can’t be offered for free (at scale) or ad-supported. I wrote about Jott’s transition away from "freemium" here.
Voxeo launched Tropo.com
Ditech launched TokTok
Todd Simpson from Ditech networks showed off a service that gives callers a wide range of voice-activated features. According to the demo video, you can conference in a friend to the current call by saying ("Toktok, conference in Jim"). Toktok will pull appropriate phone numbers from your online address book to do that. You can also create and modify events in your Google Calendar through verbal commands. Very interesting on a number of levels. I think I’ll write a follow-up post.
Mobivox launched "CRM over Voice" product
Fellow Canadian start-up Mobivox unveiled a new stage of their platform strategy. Mobivox started off several years ago as a consumer-focused calling service (i.e. discount long distance) and has since successfully transitioned into a platform-for-carriers company. Alec Saunders described this latest addition by saying "it’s about the idea that carriers should host users address books, and watch to see what they do with those address books. Over time, as behavior is tracked, a CRM over Voice application would automatically start to initiate up-sell behaviours with the customer."
CEO Peter Deitrich wrote in the company blog how this is all about reducing customer churn: "Every time end users – whether our own or those of our partners – access our platform, they ‘talk’ with a personalized and provider-branded voice assistant. In essence, a natural dialogue with the customer… [and] an opportunity to deliver tailored, non-intrusive messages – for example, thanking users for or making payments, highlighting new features or offers, even doing short and simple customer satisfaction surveys… "
Skype makes their "SILK" voice codec royalty free
Jonathan Christensen made an announcement that was received very enthusiastically by the crowd. In fact, many of the questions were of the flavor: "Really? What’s the catch?" because it sounded to good to be true. Skype has put very generous licensing terms around their new "superwideband" voice codec, which is the default codec in the new Skype client. Some coverage here.
Calliflower founder Alec Saunders gave an update on their very slick and forward-thinking conferencing application. He also looked back at his very prescient 2005 post "Voice 2.0 Manifesto" and compared it to where we are today.
Some other coverage
As I mentioned, I saw only a fraction of the sessions. Here are posts from other attendees that will fill in some the blanks:
Alan Quayle: Emerging Communications Conference 2009.
Dean Bubley: Thoughts from eComm.
Andy Abramson: eComm Was A Hit.
[Update: Martin Geddes, Head of Strategy for BT Design, and a well-known industry analyst, gave a presentation by video which is now available here. He discusses Fonolo starting at the 8:00 mark.]
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