Ring in the GrandCentral

Our digital lives are getting too complicated. We have multiple email accounts, IM accounts and ever increasing number of voice lines (cellular, landline, and VoIP) — all to stay connected. While tools like Adium help us aggregate our IM accounts, and email clients can serve as catch-all for multiple email accounts, that ability to aggregate has eluded us in the voice world.

Sure there have been attempts at unified messaging before, but none has been able to solve the usability problem. Others might remember the follow me-find me service, Wildfire, which tried to make sense of an ever increasing tally of phone numbers. GrandCentral, a Fremont, California based company is launching a brand new service that at first blush proves to be a worthy descendant of all those services, and offers an easy to use tools for the hyper connected.
GrandCentral, for those who are keeping score used to be the name of a company started by Halsey Minor, to do something. It got lot of press and didn’t really go anywhere. All that was left was the name. That was good enough for Craig Walker and Vincent Paquet, former executives from DialPad, which was acquired by Yahoo back in the day when mojo still ruled.

With some investment from Minor Ventures and a name, the two executives kicked off the company on Jan 4, 2006. Their plan was to build a service that gave you a phone number for life. (Well, that is a story we have heard before, and have heard of nightmares that follow when start ups that make grandiose promises go under.)

Maybe that is why we were skeptical when we met with Walker and Paquet to get close look at their service, that is based on a special softswitch developed by the company.
So what is GrandCentral? It is as we said, a phone number for life. “The idea is to add a layer of anonymity to your real phone numbers,” says Walker. “We give you complete control over your voice services and voicemail.”

You go to their website, sign-up, and get a free account. (It comes with 100 minutes of calling. An unlimited plan costs $15 a month.) After signing up, you get a phone number, say, 415.555.1212. You add your home, office, and wireless numbers to this account.

When someone calls you on the number you get from GrandCentral, the incoming call is routed to any one of your phones. The call can go directly to the voice mail box, if you choose to do that. Voicemails can be saved for as long as you want. You get an email alert, and can check your messages from any of the listed numbers, without much trouble.

You, can upload your address book, and set rules that can help manage your incoming call flow. For instance, if you are working in the office, all incoming calls from your mother in law can be forwarded to well, a voicemail box. Similarly you can assign “people” who can reach you anytime, regardless of your location. (Your kid’s school teacher would be a good option.)

GrandCentral has taken the concept of spam list from email and has applied it to voice mail. For instance, if an annoying telemarketer is calling you, you can click on their phone number and put them in a spam list. Same holds true for banishing stalkers, but that’s a story for another day.

I particularly like the listen in feature that allows you to listen to voicemails in real time, and actually interrupt the voicemail and start the conversation – just like those old message machines. There are other nifty features, many of them which you can discover yourself, which make GC very useful. (There is an awesome feature for podcasters, and it involves #4. Go solve the mystery.)

Like jangl and iotum, GrandCentral has the right approach to VoIP. It is not a minute stealer like Rebtel, or low cost PSTN replacement like Vonage. It solves a specific problem, is relatively easy to use, and their business is not predicated on destroying someone else’s business. It can increase mobile minute use, and of course, in the end help me manage my time better.

What do you think? Is there a future for service like GrandCentral?

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