Updated 11:57 a.m. throughout with new and background information.
Gmail isn't just about e-mail anymore: it's also a phone.
Google launched the ability to make voice calls to any traditional phone number from a Gmail account Wednesday, which. It's a blend of Gmail and Google Voice technology that allows users to dial numbers from their computers as well as receive incoming calls through one's Google Voice number.
Gmail users can link their Google Voice accounts with their Gmail accounts to have their in-boxes treated like just another line that will ring when people call their Google Voice numbers, and their Google Voice number will appear on the incoming call screen of those they are calling. A Google Voice account isn't required to use the service, but international calls will be funded through Google Voice accounts.
Calls to phone numbers in the U.S. and Canada will be free, and will cost 2 cents a minute to several other countries such as France and the U.K. The service should be rolling out to Gmail users in the U.S. on Wednesday, with international availability coming at an unspecified later date.
In a blog post announcing the feature, Google would only commit to offering free calls in the U.S. and Canada through the end of the year. Google's Craig Walker, product manager for real-time communications, said the company had no plans to raise rates beyond 2010, but it is still waiting to see if it will make enough margin on international calls to justify the free cost of U.S. and Canada calls. It will cost a little more to call mobile phones in countries outside the U.S., depending on the country.
Google Apps customers won't see this function just yet, no doubt disappointing some small-business customers looking to eliminate their phone bills. However, Google played it coy as far as plans for bringing out a business-friendly version of this technology, saying it wasn't ready as of yet but that it was interested in providing such a service.
The obvious target for such a service is Skype, the most well-known VoIP provider in the world with 124 million active users each month, according to data it released along with plans to raise money through an initial public offering. Google wouldn't confirm exactly how many Gmail users there are at present, only to say it was in the "hundreds of millions" according to Gmail product manager Todd Jackson.
However, Google has no plans to make this service available on mobile devices at the moment, which is an advantage for Skype and other VoIP companies. There are dozens of other mobile VoIP apps--including Skype--inside both Apple's App Store and the Android Market, although mobile VoIP is still a relatively new technology with performance problems from time to time. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has talked many times this year about the importance of developing applications for mobile devices, however, so it's not a stretch to assume Google is working toward making this feature available through either mobile browser or an Android application.
Google plans to promote the new service by installing Google Voice phone booths in various airports and universities around the U.S., where people will be able to step into the booths and make free phone calls.