Google senior software engineer Alex Wiesen announced the return of Google Voice calls in Gmail in a blog post on Tuesday. The Gmail calling feature in Google Voice first launched three years ago but was removed in a Hangouts update in May.
The resurrected calling capability, Wiesen insists, is even better than before. It now includes the ability to add multiple phone numbers and video participants to the same call and the ability to play sound effects through the Google Effects menu, available in the left-hand sidebar when a video Hangout is active.
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Hangouts now offers free calls to the U.S. and Canada from any country where Google makes the software available. Rates for international calls continue to be, as Wiesen characterizes it, "super, super low."
Those using Hangouts to make calls automatically receive a basic Google Voice account. In order to receive calls, however, users must have a full Google Voice account, which at present is only available in the U.S. Though upgrading to a full Google Voice account is free, doing so requires users to provide some account information, as Google explains on its support site.
Hangouts has evolved from a compelling video conferencing application for Google+ users, becoming the core of what Google clearly intends to be its unified communications platform. Hangouts looks a lot like Google's attempt to create a competitor to Microsoft's Skype and Apple's iMessage and FaceTime.
At Google I/O 2013, the company announced a retooled version of Hangouts that includes chat capabilities previously offered through Google Talk and Google+ Messenger, an Android app for text chat, and photo/video sharing. The revised Hangouts is no longer just a Google+ service. It's also offered as a Chrome Web extension, an iOS app, and an Android app.
However, Google's assertion that Hangouts is the future of Google Voice worries fans of the present version of Google Voice, whose concern no doubt is magnified by the ease with which Google discards the old to make room for the new. In a Google+ post on Tuesday, Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, asked Google to clarify what it means by such statements. "I don't want [Google Voice] going away because you've got some weird compulsion to make everything Hangouts," he wrote.