GrandCentral could make phones lovable again

Web based phone management service GrandCentral is launching here at DEMO and it’s one of the most interesting uses of VOIP I’ve seen yet. When you sign up for a GrandCentral VOIP number you can do all kinds of useful things with incoming calls and voice mail through the service’s web interface. Here’s a list of some of the features:

  • Incoming phone calls ring on different phones according to which group you’ve placed a caller’s phone number in.
  • You can play different voice mail greetings for friends, family and work calls.
  • Voice mail is stored indefinitely.
  • Voice mail can be listened to and replied to with just a few clicks.
  • Voice mail messages can be listened to in real time and you can jump in to initiate a conversation in real time with one click.
  • Telemarketers or others can be banished to the spam folder so if you’re called by the same number again your phone will simply not ring.
  • You can click to have GrandCentral call both the person who left a message and your phone.
  • You can record a section of any call with one button on the keypad of your phone.
  • You can seamlessly switch from one of your phones to another.

A number of these features will really only be useful with repeat callers, but not all. I think that’s a pretty impressive feature set.

Accounts created now are free for 60 days (no credit card required) and will cost $25 for 1000 minutes or $15 per month for unlimited use. There will also be a free, 100 minute per month option indefinitely – though that may only be useful to tell people to call you back on your other number if you decide you don’t like GrandCentral. See below for more discussion of data portability.

GrandCentral was founded by Craig Walker and Vincent Paquet, both previously executives at Dialpad Communications, a VOIP service acquired by Yahoo! last year. The company has raised $4 million in funding from Minor Ventures. They fancy themselves to be anti-telco and that’s probably a great way to make friends. Similar services have been offered by other companies in the past, but GrandCentral believes their past success in VOIP combined with the relatively new ubiquity of broadband puts them in a good position.

All of this is well and good,
but I asked the founders about a couple of other things readers might find of interest; the ability to leave the service and take your data with you and possible future directions they could explore.

Data portability. One number for life is a nice slogan, but if am going to put a lot of important information into my account at GrandCentral I want to know that I’m going to be able to get it out again. While cell phone numbers can now be ported from one carrier to another, the company told me it is not currently possible to take my VOIP number from them elsewhere if I cancel their service. Users can currently import phone numbers from Outlook or in CSV format and GrandCentral told me they are working on making it possible to export the phone numbers users have captured in the system back out again. I also think that batch export of MP3 voice mails with the metadata I’ve attached is a reasonable expectation.

If GrandCentral seeks to bring the best parts of the web to management of telephony, it would behoove them to include maximum openness and respect for users’ ownership of our own data on that list of qualities. They expressed a willingness to live up to those expectations.

Future directions. Users will soon be able to use GrandCentral to receive faxes as well as voice calls. The company is also looking into social networking type features for their site. We may see people sharing photos, videos and voice recordings on GrandCentral soon. The voice recording feature, by the way, does not alert both parties to a call that the conversation is being recorded. Most states in the US, the company told me, only require that one party consent to a call being recorded – the onus is on the GrandCentral user to obey their local laws. While it might be fun to check out a Digg type rating page for the funniest recorded voice clips from GrandCentral calls – this could also lead to some amount of backlash. There are any number of ways that a phone call can be surreptitiously recorded, but this one is particularly easy. Though some amount of mischievous fun could be lost, I think the company really should require that all parties to a call be notified of recording.

Overall, I think GrandCentral is a remarkably good product. I’ve got an account myself and look forward to using it. Other services that allow web management of voice mail can still ask for too much interaction with your phone, but putting VOIP in the middle is very smart.