Google on Tuesday said calls made within the United States and to Canada would remain free "in the spirit of holiday giving and to help people keep in touch in the new year." The company first introduced free calling in Gmail in August, saying the service would be available at no charge only for the rest of the year.
While Google has framed the giveaway in the context of the holiday spirit, it's more likely the latest move is primarily to boost usage of its Google Voice Internet telephony service, which has been integrated into Gmail. Google is building Gmail into a communication hub encompassing phone calls, e-mail, and instant messaging. Gmail has hundreds of millions of active users, so providing free calling through the service is expected to encourage wider use of Google Voice in time. Google Voice was made available to the public in June after a lengthy period of closed testing.
Google's major competitor in Internet telephony is Skype, which boasts up to 23 million people making calls on the service worldwide at peak times of the day. Google said in June that it had more than a million active users on its voice over IP service.
Skype offers a more mature telephone service than Google Voice, and has also been used for video calling globally for years. Calls between Skype users are free. Calls to landlines and mobile phones incur a per-minute charge that varies with the country. In the United States, such calls cost 2.3 cents a minute. Calls to Canada start at 2.7 cents a minute.
Gmail users can make calls through their Web browser, provided their computer has a microphone and speakers. People making calls without a Google Voice account cannot receive calls. Instead, they appear to be calling from a generic number, which, if called, will promote Google Voice.