Tuesday, March 17, 2009

GrandCentral is becoming Google Voice

I was checking my GrandCentral voicemails over the weekend on GrandCentral and saw this:
While it is reassuring to hear that GC is ending its endless beta, the banner seems a bit premature, in that all the email still stays “GrandCentral.”

The Google Voice page lists the same features GC had when Google bought it almost 2 years ago: call forwarding, call screening and blocking, distinctive reading. From the coverage in Red Herring and by columnist Larry Magid, apparently the major new features are voice messages via SMS (and speech-to-text), and conference calling. As Fool Anders Bylund notes, the new service benefits from some of Google’s other experiments like Google 411.

The home page say “If you are a GrandCentral user, over the next few days you will be prompted to upgrade to Google Voice” while GC cofounders Craig Walker and Vince Paquet make the same point in the official announcement without saying “upgrade.”

I am guessing that those who do not “upgrade” will remain behind on the GC servers running the old code until Google shuts them off in 6-12 months. In my inbox, it says “Your account is not yet ready to be upgraded. Please check back shortly.” which implies they plan to transition people in waves.

This seems the ultimate in commoditized telecommunications. Free call forwarding, free calls (to US phones) from your desktop. If it’s already free, then it doesn’t seem like there will be a price war. Does this mean other firms will be deterred from entering or does this mean there will be competition based on R&D spending to add new features (thus providing huge economies of scale).

The original GrandCentral was a freemium play — in fact, that’s where I first heard the term. For GrandCentral then — as with all aspects of Google beyond search today — the value capture is unclear — whether because they’re not sure of what they’re doing (e.g. making it up as the go along), because they’re ultra-secretive, or because the emperor really is standing there buck naked.

In the meantime, viable business model or not, I’ll glad sit here and drink the free beer, and hand out my GC phone number on my business card. Thanks Craig and Vince — whether or not Google makes money off of it, I find your service useful and will continue to use it as long as the price is right. That’s what commoditization is all about.

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