Google could be ready to turn Gmail into a communications hub by adding the ability to make phone calls from the Google Chat interface.
CNET has learned that Google is testing a Web-based service within Gmail that will allow users to place phone calls from their in-boxes. It's launched from the Google Chat window on the lower left-hand side of a Gmail page and allows users to place and receive calls from within their contacts through a user interface that strongly resembles the one used in Google Voice.
Google has been edging in this direction for some time. Google Talk was released years ago as a VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) desktop client, and it has also spent a lot of time and money evangelizing Google Voice, a service that transcribes voice mails and allows users to have one phone number that rings multiple phones.
But a Web-based VOIP client--which is what the new service appears to be--is another matter entirely. This is the likely culmination of Google's work to integrate Gizmo5's similar product, which it acquired late last year, into its arsenal. Hints that such a service was coming first surfaced in June on the Google Operating System blog, which is not affiliated with Google.
It's not clear if Google Voice will be changing, or whether this new service is a completely separate offering. The user interfaces appear the same--for example, the same icons are used to label missed calls or placed calls--but Google Voice is not a VoIP service. Users of the new chat/phone call service aren't required to have a Google Voice account, and calls placed to U.S. or Canadian numbers will be free, with discounts on international calls as compared to standard rates.
Skype is the obvious target of such an application, but there are lots of companies that make both desktop-based and Web-based VoIP clients.
"Google is always testing new features and products, but we have nothing specific to announce right now," a Google representative said.