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Google Voice Takes VoIP to Android, BlackBerry

Google Voice
Google Voice -- the search giant's VoIP call-routing service -- is now available in Android and BlackBerry applications, offering users a centralized platform handling a unified phone number, SMS, and automated voicemail transcription.

The service functions primarily around connecting users' traditional phones via VoIP. The technology, based on Google's acquisition of GrandCentral Communications, first appeared as a Google product in March, when it entered a public beta. At that time, users could only initiate calls through a Web interface, which connected the two parties.

Now with Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) mobile apps for Research In Motion's (NASDAQ: RIMM) BlackBerry and Android handsets, users simply make the call directly from their mobile phone.

"With this new mobile app, you can make calls and send SMS messages with your Google Voice number directly from your mobile phone. The app is fully integrated with each phone's contacts, so you can call via Google Voice straight from your address book," Google Voice Product Manager Vincent Paquet wrote in a blog post.

Google Voice apps will also let users use their smartphones to access and manage their inboxes, make and send SMS messages with their Google Voice number, make low-priced international calls at rates Google said were typical for to Voice over IP (VoIP) services and customize how calls are managed.

"You can choose which calls you'd like to place through Google Voice," a Google spokesperson told InternetNews.com. "On the Android application, you can choose to route all calls through Google Voice, only international calls, or no calls, if you just want to check your voicemail through the app. On the Blackberry, you can simply use the native Blackberry dialer if you do not want to place a particular call through Google Voice."

Google is also currently working on a Google Voice app for the Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPhone, but declined to comment on when it might become available.

The company also said it won't be running ads in the Google Voice app. In March, there had been some speculation by industry watchers that Google would try to make money from the voice service by baking ads into voicemail transcripts.

What remains to be seen is how the search giant's entry into the VoIP arena will impact wireless carriers, for whom traditional cell phone services -- like calls and SMS text messages -- are increasingly getting cut out of the picture.

For example, SMS messages sent through the Google Voice mobile application are treated as part of the user's data plan, so the user would not pay a text message fee for such messages. However, text messages represent a large portion of carriers' income.

As VoIP apps have migrated to smartphones, there's also been a worry among software vendors about cannibalizing their partners' traditional revenue stream. When Skype launched its app for the iPhone, for instance, it supported VoIP only over Wi-Fi connections -- not when the device was connected via 3G, a move that ensured that on-the-go users still have to pay carriers for voice communications.

With a promise to handle routing for even international calls -- making it cheaper for callers -- it's unclear how Google's approach will sit with carriers.

Rebecca Swensen, an analyst at IDC, told InternetNews.com, said that carriers are closely examining the issue.

[cob:Special_Report]"Wireless carriers are already looking at new ways to handle [VoIP]," she said. "Initially, everyone said everything will go to data unless they want to become the 'dumb pipe,' but I'm hearing they're starting to have some conversations with some mobile VoIP players, trying to figure out how to create added value."

"I'm not sure how that will play out with Google, but it seems carriers are at least opening the door to providers, looking at their options," she added.

One example is the mobile VoIP firm Mobivox, which offers its voice-activation calling service to carriers, letting them sell it under their own names.

"These solutions have been around for a while, but the difference is Google has a huge user base, so naturally, that makes it easier for [wireless customers] to transfer them over to Google Voice," she said. "Google wants people to be the platform, the interface, for all information, and that includes communication between two people."

It's also 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 eBay-owned Skype.

For now, however, Skype doesn't appear to be worried.

"We welcome new entrants to the market. We believe this recognizes the market opportunity that Skype has focused on for the last six years -- delivering a comprehensive online communications experience that delivers value, quality and ease-of-use, with amazing full screen video and 'in the same room' sound," a Skype spokesman told InternetNews.com. "This is why our brand stands for communication and why Skype has attracted more than 400 million registered users globally."

Skype's iPhone app launched March 31, and has been downloaded 4 million times, with more than 1 million users have registered on Skype using the program, according to the Skype blog.

Swensen agreed that there's room enough in the market for more than one dominant player.

"In what I call the communications-as-a-service market, [it's] not a one-player game," she said. "Skype is the leader now because of its huge subscriber base, but the door is open to compete with them. Granted, it will be difficult to catch up to them, but the reality is that it's anyone's game. It's not how it used to be 20 years ago when you had to have the pipes to the house to compete."

Meanwhile, eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY) is shopping around Skype for a possible IPO even as it bets on growing Skype well beyond its chief current focus as a PC-based voice chat and videoconferencing application. Expectations remain lofty for the unit, with executives saying they expect the VoIP pioneer to double revenue by 2011.