Not content with dominating search, email, maps and online video, this week Google announced that, for its American customers at least, it will also be attempting to usurp the telephone.
Within days of rolling out the option to call Google contacts’ phones from within its Gmail service, the search giant revealed that more than a million people had already used the service, which it is expecting to be driven in large part by bargain rates for international calls. But for consumers, it’s another step along the road to the idea of one number that can reach you wherever you are, rather than separate ones for mobile, home and work.
The move puts Google in direct competition with Skype, whose forthcoming IPO may now be looking somewhat less attractive, but it also marks a new evolution in the connectivity of services; the web browser, on a phone or a computer, is becoming the window via which consumers can view everyone they know. In due course it’s likely, too, that the idea of dialling a number on a landline phone will be as unusual as actually dialling one on a mobile.
Indeed, with Google’s existing American service, Google Voice, the idea of differentiating between one number for mobile and landline already seems increasingly antiquated. Just as there is one Facebook profile, one main email address, so too the integration of services looks set to mean one phone number will ring through to the most appropriate mobile, desk phone or computer.
Robin Murdoch, consultancy Accenture’s lead on internet, says that Google’s step is “evolutionary rather than revolutionary – what they’ve done is integrated the voice service they’ve already got much more tightly into Gmail. But the trend is what’s more interesting and important: it’s the increasingly unified tools that websites are constructing which offer a range of ways to communicate all in one place.”
That means, according to Murdoch, that the appearance of technological barriers will start to diminish. “Consumers increasingly are going to lose the sense of whether they’re doing something through a web browser or through a dedicated app or programme,” he says. “Where the browser ends and the app begins will become much harder to discern.”
The technology that makes data lines useful for telephone conversations is called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), and many large companies already use it because it provides cheaper, cleverer phone networks. At the other end of the scale, individual customers of BT Broadband have long been offered a VoIP service, too.
What few organisations or individuals have achieved, however, is the complete integration of contacts into a single system integrated into several devices. So mobile phones and BlackBerry devices usually have far more information about contacts than landline phones. Google’s move is the beginning of a bid to bring them all together. It’s a logical, obvious ambition to unify communication, in its various modern forms, into a single place.
At the back of all this, Murdoch points out, is Google’s desire to get ever more people using the internet. “Google makes its money through search,” he says. “So the more people are online, the more likely it is they’ll be looking for things, whatever else they’re doing at the same time, and the more likely it is that Google will be able to make money selling advertising.”
It’s this that allows Google and other major web companies such as Facebook to offer previously costly services in their current free products. Google, for instance, is offering free US and Canadian calls “at least until the end of the year”.
Realistically, of course, the day when the landline, mobile and computer are all completely united is some way off. But the integration of systems across multiple devices is likely, with the muscle of corporations such as Google behind it, to offer genuine benefits to consumers – and it presents a major revenue opportunity to the companies themselves