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Google Dives Into Phone Call, Voicemail Services

Google Voice
Google this week said it's preparing to launch new services for mobile users, offering free U.S. calls, unified text messages and voicemail across numbers and integrated speech-to-text and search functionality.

But the new Google Voice service also may be ringing alarm bells for the VoIP and mobile industry as well as privacy advocates.

The upcoming offering provides one number for all your phones that also integrates SMS and free voicemail, along with voicemail transcription, call forwarding and conference calling. Currently, it's only available to existing customers of GrandCentral Communications, a telecommunications firm Google bought in July 2007.

The Google Voice service will automatically transcribe your voicemail to text -- though it can be shut off in the settings page of the service -- and you can search through past voicemails as well as archived SMS messages.

"Users can access their voicemail and SMS messages by phone, e-mail, or the Web. From the Google Voice inbox, a user can search for a specific voicemail message or SMS message," a Google spokesperson said.

While Google has long baked advertising into its core products -- running ads in tandem with search queries and within services like Gmail -- it's still not clear whether Google Voice run ads alongside these transcripts or elsewhere in the new service.

"We don't have specific plans to share at this time regarding advertising within Google Voice," the spokesperson told InternetNews.com.

But industry analyst and consultant Greg Sterling speculated that Google may introduce advertising if it needs to help offset costs for the free calls and if the service becomes popular.

He also said the specter of advertising in the interface is what rankles privacy advocates.

"There are possibilities, though sometimes you expect Google to introduce ads at some point with a new service and they don't," he said. "But they could scan the content of voicemail transcripts and insert text ads."

"I can envision a situation where the interface has ads ties into it, they could even be behaviorally targeted ads, based on their announcement yesterday, and this is what goes right at the heart of what privacy advocates are concerned about," he said.

Sterling also raised the possibility of audio ads, given that Google recently shuttered its radio ad unit but didn't scrap the infrastructure and said it would still look for distribution channels.

"Audio ads could be inserted, whether branded or contextually relevant, into voicemail," Sterling said.

In terms of privacy issues, he said that Google is smart to take a wait-and-see approach before monetizing Google Voice, avoiding interference with the user experience until its widely adopted and politically prudent.

"The key is integration with other services like Gmail, that's the appeal for the user is everything is all working together in a centralized way," Sterling said. "But that's also what raises concerns with privacy groups. The political part is Google doesn't want to confirm fears of data mining."

It's too early to tell how Google Voice will impact the VoIP market in the long-term, and in particular how it will affect big players in the sector such as Skype.

The Google Voice news comes as eBay is betting on growing Skype well beyond its chief current focus as a PC-based voice chat and videoconferencing application, yesterday describing plans that could see Skype doubling revenue by 2011.

Meanwhile, though, Skype just last week began its own voicemail-to-text service using U.K.-based SpinVox, though it's a paid offering.

Sterling said that Google's competing release is impressive, and depending on how much the search leader promotes it, could have a big effect on the industry. On the other hand, initiatives such as Google Checkout, which was touted as a "PayPal Killer," never gained wide adoption despite big marketing campaigns.

The launch comes just days after inventor Judah Klausner said he had settled a lawsuit with Google over Klausner's patents covering "visual voicemail," which gives users e-mail like controls for managing voicemail.

Klausner's company had previously sued and settled with Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), which includes visual voicemail in its iPhone.