A lot of "unified messaging" services have been foisted on us in the last 10 or so years, but few have really gotten traction. At DemoFall, I checked out some very interesting phone-messaging applications, all of which looked useful by themselves, but it made my head hurt to think about using them in combination. One other service that launched at the show, GrandCentral, looked even more immediately useful than the messaging services, and I expect it will grow to incorporate many of their features.
GrandCentral is pitched as "One number for life." When you sign up, you get a new phone number. When people call this number, the system takes their name (the first time they call; after that, it remembers), and rings all of your telephones for you at the same time--your desk, your mobile, your home--and lets you pick up the call from any of them.
That, in itself, is a very useful feature. But wait, there's more: GrandCentral allows you to reject calls after you hear the name of the person calling; define which of your phones ring based on who is calling, and when (so work calls don't ring you at home); send some numbers to spam permanently; and even listen in on voicemail as it's being left and pick up if you want. You also get a permanent record of all your incoming calls. And you can use GrandCentral to place calls to people, too. When you use it to make a call, it calls you first on the phone you specify and then connects to the person you're calling--much like the VoIP go-between service JahJah. (It's free for now, but after the system leaves beta, this call completion service may cost you a few cents.)
All the features are wrapped up in a very slick and easy Web interface. The service will handle 100 minutes a month for free, beyond that it will cost $15 a month. During the beta period, it's all free--it doesn't even ask for a credit card.
I'd like to see a few things added, though. First, the system needs a mobile interface, either a Java or Windows Mobile download (or a Palm app for Treo users). I'd also like to see an Outlook plug-in (for placing calls from my address book). The calling rules could be more flexible, although there's something to be said for the simplicity of the rules engine as it stands. And using GrandCentral will cause new users some confusion, as every time somebody calls you you'll end up with "missed call" indicators on your phones except the one you accepted the call on. You'll need to find a way to turn off those reminders if you use this system.
Finally, pitching anything as a "for life" solution is asking for trouble. Who's to say if GrandCentral will still be around and handling phone calls a year from now? Indeed, this isn't even GrandCentral's first business--previously it was an enterprise data aggregation service. But that said, this looks like one of the best personal phone call-handling services I've ever seen. It's definitely worth experimenting with, and I hope the team continues to layer in new features.
Note: GrandCentral (in both its current and previous incarnations) was bankrolled by Halsey Minor, one of the founders of CNET.