On September 27th, 2006, GrandCentral founders Craig Walker and Vincent Pacquet unleashed their company’s vision at the Fall DEMO conference in front of a crowd of eager investors. Their basic principle was simple: your phone number shouldn’t be tied to a device or a location, it should be tied to you.
Chapter 1: One Number for All Your Phones Forever
Mr. Walker then enumerated the implications of this simple idea:
- No matter how many phones you have, you will only have one phone number and it will never change.
- Because of this, you will check all voicemail in one place.
- You will be able to customize everything about this phone – from voicemail to what phones ring and when – from the web.
“Never miss a call you want to take,” he stated, “and never take a call you want to miss.”
Although there were reservations about the quality of the still-very-beta service, the idea behind it was revolutionary and the web management of its features very well thought-out. Plus, GrandCentral was willing to issue you a new phone number FOR FREE and let you connect all of your existing phone numbers to it.
But there was even more the service could offer. Customization allowed incoming phone calls to ring to different phones depending on the caller, calls could be easily transferred from one phone to another, and, at any point, a portion of a call could be recorded live by simply pressing the number four on your phone’s keypad.
The features with voicemail were just as impressive. At the onset of any call, users could listen to voicemail messages being recorded in real time by callers and jump in with the click of a button. Via the online customization, users could also set rules to let certain callers here different, personalized voicemail messages. Finally voicemails were stored indefinitely, could be listened to with a single click, and replied to with another – by calling both the user’s phone and the phone number of the person they wished to speak with.
Needless to say, Craig Walker and Vincent Pacquet walked away from DEMO Fall 2006 with rave reviews of their company and a blogger buzz to fuel the fire.
Chapter 2: The Initial Stumbling Blocks and then….BAM! You’re part of Google
In spite of its promise, GrandCentral came out of private beta in early March of 2007 – only six months later – and was met with some broad disapproval from its users. There was always the initial hurdle of getting other people to use your new GrandCentral number, but now people were complaining that the service itself didn’t work properly. Phone calls were sometimes never received and people whose numbers were actually “whitelisted” and were supposed to go through right to the caller were often halted and made to leave a message before the caller could pick up.
One consumer even commented on a Techcrunch blog about GrandCentral that he was “amazed that people are OK with the call quality… Try having somebody call your GrandCentral number from a cellphone and then answer the call from a cellphone. It’s like talking on a walkie talkie from the 70’s!”
The main benefit of the service also became one of the largest reasons to abandon it. If you were going to put a great deal of time and effort into getting people to only call one number for you from now on, and that number was never going to change, then you’d better be damn sure the service was going to work the way it’s supposed to. At least for the time being, that wasn’t the case.
As Craig Walker promised, however, improvements we’re in the works. And only a month after coming out of private beta, Grand Central launched the mobile version of its service. A lightweight rendition of its standard version, the mobile service had all the same basic functionality of the web-based software and also allowed you to access your address book and make changes to your account settings and call routing. Voicemails, however, were recorded in mp3 format, so your phone needed an mp3 player if you wanted to listen to your messages. Finally, and almost as a hint of things to come, GrandCentral mobile also provided users with “Visual Voicemail” – the ability to see voicemails from certain people and delete them without listening to them – which was to be a feature of the then-upcoming iPhone.
All of this commotion quickly grabbed the attention of Google, who, no less than two months later bought Grand Central for a cool $50+ million. Many believed they would use the technology to challenge companies like Skype in web-based communications software.
Problems that Google fixed and how:
Although they kept Craig Walker as part of the new Google team, the company remained virtually unheard of for 21 months after its acquisition. Several critical problems with the service were addressed during this time, and just after its re-launch as Google Voice in March 2009, several new features were announced.
- You used to have to give everyone your Google voice number and ask that everyone call that number from now on. To fix this, Google introduced “Number Portability” – (Edit: This is actually a future release. Stay tuned for it.) – allowing you to port your existing number to your Google Voice number, so that every time someone called your cell phone number your Google voice number would actually be the number dialed.
- Even with this number portability, outbound calls used to show the number of the cell phone you were calling from, not your Google voice number.
- Google fixed this issue by creating Smartphone apps for the Blackberry, iPhone and android phones that actually rerouted all outbound calls through your Google Voice number. A similar problem existed for outbound SMS messages, but Google cleared this up in a similar fashion.
Chapter 3: Apple and Google’s Ugly Split
That’s when the levees broke. Apple removed third party Google Voice apps from the app store and – although they denied doing so in their letter to the FCC 3 weeks later – flat out rejected the Google Voice Mobile app for the iPhone. The resulting fallout over these decisions and the growing belief that it was AT&T that was behind them prompted the FCC to send letters to all three companies to clear up exactly what happened.
Apple claimed that it had not “rejected” the official Google Voice Mobile app for the iPhone but rather “was still considering it.” Nevertheless, they did mention that this app “duplicated” certain core iPhone features such as Visual Voicemail and the native dialer, and this was the primary reason why the app had not yet been accepted into the app store.
AT&T insisted that it was not them who was behind Apple’s decision making, and Google’s statements to the FCC we’re redacted for public consideration.
Then, despite their declaration that they didn’t have anything to do with banning Google Voice from the iPhone, AT&T sent a complaint letter to the FCC saying that Google – through Google Voice – was guilty of violating Net Neutrality standards set forth by the FCC: proof in itself that AT&T had a problem with Google Voice. What made this more bizarre was that AT&T had openly opposed Net Neutraility standards for mobile carriers. Now they were being accused of carrying out a double standard on the issue.
You could say Google’s playing a bit of a double standard as well, blocking certain calls made to and from AT&T carrier phones. Just last week they were brought under the microscope again for suggesting they “be let off the hook because [they've] cut back on the calls [they] block” to iPhones.
But for now, the beat goes on. We can only hope that the two sides start to play nice, because I like Googling things on my iPhone. And I’d hate to lose that commodity when the dust finally, eventually, hopefully settles on the ballad of Google and Apple.