Google's Single-Number Service Hits A Couple Of Speed Bumps

Some 434 GrandCentral users were affected when a small regional carrier partner decided to exit certain local markets.

Richard Martin, Contributor

August 24, 2007

4 Min Read

Less than two months after his company was acquired by Google, GrandCentral founder Craig Walker didn't expect to be answering e-mails from disgruntled users.

But that's what he spent most of two weeks ago doing after GrandCentral was forced to change a small number of customer numbers. The company offers a free "single number for life" service that allows customers to unify disparate voice lines into one account manageable over the Web.

"We were very disappointed and upset we weren't able to make sure everyone could keep their original numbers," said Walker of himself and co-founder Vincent Paquet. "It's definitely something where we worked our hardest to make the impact as minimal as possible."

Ultimately, 434 GrandCentral users were affected when a small regional carrier partner decided to exit certain local markets, Walker said. GrandCentral eased the transition for its affected customers by offering two numbers -- the old one and the new -- until this past Saturday, when the old number went dead.

A darling of the tech press since its 2005 founding, GrandCentral was purchased by Google in early July for an undisclosed sum said to be in the dozens of millions. GrandCentral offers a relatively simple solution to the profusion of mobile and landline phone numbers that many people now lug around: a single number assigned by GrandCentral (or chosen by the user) that rings through to all of the customer's existing lines, based on rules that the customer sets.

For instance, if you want calls from your boss to ring to your office and your mobile, but not your home, you can choose that option. If you want calls from your fantasy football league buddies to ring to your mobile but not your home or your office, you can set it up that way.

GrandCentral also offers a number of other appealing options via its Web interface, including the ability to screen calls and to listen to voice-mail messages as they're being left (and, if you choose, to pick up and answer during the voice-mail).

"We were able to build a platform that gave users through that one number the ability to control their calls in a unique way," said Walker.

To be sure, there had been hiccups with the beta service even before the humbler changes. News site Tech Crunch reported in March that some early adopters had abandoned the service after discovering that the features didn't always perform as advertised. And more than one reviewer has noted that the service works only on incoming calls; when you make a call from your desk phone at the office, for instance, GrandCentral is bypassed and the service's automatic features (like the ability to punch one button to record a call) are unavailable.

Indeed, GrandCentral's speed bumps mirror the difficulties that the telecom and networking industry has had in getting the broader range of enterprise-targeted services known as "unified communications" (including single-number ring-through, Web-based call management features, cellular-to-Wi-Fi convergence, and so on) off the ground.

"There are lots of cool innovations that have become available because of voice-over-IP," said Zeus Kerravala, senior VP for enterprise research at the Yankee Group. "But in many cases the perceived reward you get isn't worth the work it takes to go set it up.

GrandCentral, Kerravala adds, "is one of those things that's very sticky -- if you try it you realize it's quite useful. They face some work getting over that hurdle" of getting people to try the service.

Getting over the hurdle, of course, will be much easier with the help of new owner Google. The GrandCentral purchase is part of an emerging unified communications strategy for Google that includes a plan to bid in the upcoming FCC auction of valuable spectrum rights in the 700 MHz band plus a partnership with Sprint Nextel to provide Google applications via a "mobile portal" on the carrier's WiMax network once it's built out.

"We think GrandCentral's technology fits well into Google's efforts to provide services that enhance the collaborative exchange of information between our users," wrote Google product manager Wesley Chan in a blog post on the acquisition.

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