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Ring in the GrandCentral

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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?

49 Responses to “Ring in the GrandCentral”

  1. Karan Bilderstadt

    too bad you can’t forward your voicemails automatically to email. this, combined with the great speech>text software already available, would make this very useful for disabled people.

  2. I signed up for the GrandCentral beta about a month ago and have been extremely impressed with the service. I’ve coupled it with the MyFaves service from T-Mobile to get free incoming calls on my cell. All in all, this is an excellent, feature rich service that makes managing voices transactions much easier. Keep up the great work GC team.

  3. I love the Grand Central service and my only concern, like others…that if I give out my Grand Central number and the service goes belly up as they say them I”m stuck with a bunch of folks who have a number which doesn’t work…Yikes

  4. I’ve been testing out GrandCentral lately, and I’ve run into a showstopper:

    I tested by calling my GrandCentral number from a couple of different lines not local to the GrandCentral number.

    My unanswered calls were charged.

    When I call my GrandCentral number, it rings like a normal phone, but it seems that it gets answered and connected immediately, and then they just play a ringing tone, which seems deceptive.

    If you call a number and it rings like a regular phone, and you hang up before it gets answered by a person or goes to voicemail, you don’t expect to be charged for it, but with GrandCentral, you are.

  5. Jarrett Goetz

    Service seems great, the primary problem I see is that when I call outbound from say my cell phone, the receiver of the call is going to see my actual cell phone number. (And I want them to know me only by a single number, that hopefully GrandCentral will ultimately let me transfer into them.) Too bad you can’t call into their system from your phone and dial out from there. (While this would also be a pain, there are many phones that can pre-pend all calls with a certain dial out and a pause that would make this work with just a couple extra seconds of time.)

    Any thoughts?

  6. Great option for people that have just moved to another area and want to hang on to their old number while still getting a new one too. And honestly if they survive (and I hope they do, I just signed up :-) their user interface alone should go a long way in ensuring a loyal & large customer base.

    Quick quibble: Had some issues with their system recognizing a # tone from a VOIP desk phone.

  7. Signed up to the service and WOW its sooo much fun! I especially love being able to set and record CUSTOM ringers and even better VOICEMAIL greetings for each user. What do you think your buddy will do when he calls you and the greetings says Hi Buddy you better leave me a message. Muahahaha thats gonna be fun!

    I hate the screening things. asking for caller name and announcing caller name to me. I want it to just ring and connect when they dial and when I answer (IE transparency is critical here!) make it optional a check box to turn screening on or completely off :-)

    This service has huge “fun” potential. the hell with the consolidation thing I just love the cool features!

    would be neat if it could “send” the actual mp3’s to my phone if I get a voicemail :-)

    I really hope they can hang in there! I think they need an incoming only feature or something say $5 a month all the cool features just no outgoing (buy minutes for that) or give a few say 50 minutes or something a month (with carry over) this would get a lot of otherwise not so inclined people interested just for the FUN factor ! maybe limit the $5 account to a single phone number for people that just want the fun features etc.. I don’t know. something to get the “masses” interested.

    I want this to survive. its too much fun !

  8. As a pretty longtime VOIP user I appreciate GC’s excellence of implementation. But I see a hole in their featureset. I think they need ATA support in some format – preferably a low cost BYOD format like Broadvoice. As a user I don’t want to have to manage (and pay for) overlaping features between GC and a VOIP provider. I’d like to think that if they “frame” ATA as an optional feature, that isn’t mean’t to be a residence’s primary phone extension, they could avoid any 911/regulatory fees.

  9. Hey everyone. It’s been so fantastic to see all of the response to our service these past few days. We’ve all read some very interesting questions and had an overwhelming amount of positive feedback. I wanted to jump in for a sec and address a few comments. Firstly, while GrandCentral’s ability to ring all of your numbers simultaneously is in itself a very useful feature, it is by no means the full extent of the control you have over your telephones. GrandCentral allows you to control who reaches you on those phones, when they reach you, and what each person’s calling experience is like. You have the ability to set RingShares, which are your own mp3 files, to play in place of a standard ring for each of your callers as individuals or as a group. You can choose to disallow particular callers to reach you at certain telephones or at certain hours, as well as sending those you never want to hear from directly to your SPAM folder, where their calls are stored as mp3s in the event you ever want to listen to them. In fact, you can store all of your voicemails for life and use our web features to forward or download any of your messages. From your telephone you can choose to send a caller to voicemail and ListenIn to them leaving their message. If you decide it’s important enough to jump in on, you can immediately jump right into a live call with a press of the star key. You can also choose to record your calls and send the subsequent mp3 to your email or web account, transfer calls between your phones seamlessly, set special rules for work hours or short-term periods, and a bunch of other really useful stuff. And thats just in our initial release! As far as the price gap goes, if you don’t want to pay for the premium service but still want all of the premium features, you can buy a bucket of minutes which can be used at any time. $9.99 gets you 400 minutes which rollover from month to month. Regarding number portability, GrandCentral won’t do anything to prevent you from taking your number with you. Currently your ability to transfer your GrandCentral number to another provider is dependent on the provider you are moving to and the FCC’s rules on Local Number Portability.

    Whew, that was a mouthfull (handfull?) Anyway, thank you all for your attention and interest. We are super excited about getting GrandCentral up and running and have a whole slew of things waiting in the wings. Honestly, its a totally different experience to talk about the features GrandCentral offers than it is to actually try them out. We appreciate any and all feedback during our BETA outing, and are definitely using it all to develop an even easier and more useful experience for our users. I think that’s about all the ways one can conjugate “use” in one sentence.

    Joshua Chiet
    Flash Developer, GrandCentral

  10. Hi!
    I registered for this service yesterday. It seems very nice and reminds me of a similar service I used in around 1995. It was a “for life” 500 number that never worked well as most of the pbxes blocked it. I’ve 2 points to make here in case someone from GC again checks this site:
    1. What is the definition of “for life?” If the company changes its plan or is sold etc (just like dialpad)? Can we take this number with us for a fee or otherwise? Before I go out and start giving this number to all including prospective customers, how do I know I can have this number a year from now regardless of viability of GC?

    1. The price gap b/w Free and $15 is for too much. Another price point such as $7.50 for 1k free minutes will get my credit card out a lot faster. Otherwise, this is going to have too many freeloaders and too few payers. $15 comes too close to a full fledged VOIP service such as SunRocket.

    This is the service I’ve been looking for but without more assurances and a little less price, I think I’ll continue to be a freeloader.


  11. Roger Bohn

    VOIP providers (in particular, Vonage) already provide the call forwarding, voice mail, and other capabilities today, and it’s built into the cost of the main phone. The “phone number for life” comes along because of mandated number portability – which is more reliable than assuming one company is going to be in business for the rest of your life.

    The only thing missing in Vonage is the conditional forwarding rules: for phone number X, take action Y. This is useful for some, but it requires a close tie-in to existing address book applications to be practical – who wants to re-enter their address book a third time (computer/Palm, cell phone, and now this service)? And as others have said, it would be easy to imitate.

  12. Guys,
    It’s all marketing – sure there are plenty of companies out there doing the same thing. In fact anyone whos is good with Asterisk can do the same.

    But kudos to the GC team! they make it sound like they invented the wheel, which they probably did for the non techies!

  13. I think an underplayed feature is the outgoing calls on GrandCentral. If you add a person to your Contacts, a little “Call” button appears next to their name. You choose which device you’d prefer to be calling from, the service calls you first, and then it dials the number you wanted to call. That way, your GrandCentral number appears on the Caller ID. I think this is an awesome feature, but I guess you have to be at your computer to take advantage of it (not on your cellphone). Anyway, I am excited to see where this service goes, good job Craig.

  14. ENUM can not be the answer. After all the phone number is in the PSTN domain and let me dare say, at the behest of VoIP proponents, these service providers are not required to port the numbers. They can claim they are “renting” the number to you. So what is important is not ENUM or other technologies but regulatory reuirements.

  15. Hi Om, I had one of these phone numbers for life back in the day (2000) from Magnetpoint, another follow-me and find-me service. Until it stopped working and I lost it (it went on to try some sort of testbed for Web services).

    You mention some of the prior problems with these things, but I’m afraid they are key to the whole premise. If you market based on being around ‘for life’ then I assume people are goign to want to know what that means, at least before they put any serious money behind it.

    I used to follow ENUM, which someobdoy else mentioned but have lost touch with it a bit now, but it may be part of the answer.

    Because if it truly is to be a number for life, its portability has to transcend the lifetime of the original vendor.

  16. We have seen nearly all of these features in/from other offerings in the past. The notion that these features/functions should be decoupled from the underlying service offering is a plausable idea.

    It seems to me that this is a supply chain / value network issue based on cost. Has grandcentral somehow broken down the cost model and shifted the supply chain for offering these services so a new value network can be created providing them a new and diverged path of revenue?

    We have all pined for having these types of functions, but, few are willing to pay extra for them. So the question comes down to cost.

    Many if not all IP-PBX hardware/software providers offer most all of these functions without the added new line item in my expense reports.

    The question is who controls the “callers experience” and who is willing to pay for it, the individual, corporation/enterprise maybe the small business? I’m just not sure who the target is and exactly what problem is being solved. This would be a GREAT bolt on feature for the CableCo’s to include in their VoIP offering. However, then you come into the “buy vs build” decision.

  17. Om…thanks for the great review. Also, to clarify a few features based on some of the comments posted so far, the Flash should work 100% in Firefox, so Matt let me know if you’re having any continued problems and we’ll look into it (craig at grandcentral dot com). And Sujay, if a call comes in that we’ve never seen before (and is not in your Address Book), we’ll treat it as an uncategorized caller and it will be routed to the numbers you choose for your “Other” group. Also, once your friend has called from a new number, you can quickly add that number to your address book and update the groupt to “Friend” straight from the inbox.

    One of the keys to GrandCentral is that it gives you all of these features (ability to switch a call between phones on the fly, record a call on the fly, ListenIn on a voicemail while it is being left, etc.) from any phone on any network from any provider. You shouldn’t be tied to the services offered in your bundle from a certain carrier…you should be able to have all your features work seamlessly across all of your services.

  18. I’m not sure how this is much of a leap forward from stuff the traditional telcos have been promoting for years – for example, Verizon’s iobi service and the “calling features” they offer with their VoiceWing VoIP service. Companies like CallWave have offered the “listen in on voicemail” feature for some time, and it really hasn’t captured the imaginations of consumers … Maybe I’m missing something?

  19. Allan Leinwand

    Hi Om,

    Does this tool make use of the ENUM protocol ( defined in RFC 3761? I’ve recently seen a few startups that are building applications on the ENUM trial database that closely resemble GrandCentral for voice, mobile, email, text messaging, and location-based services. Do they have much intellectual property beyond the call routing features?

    Thanks for the post!


  20. Hi OM,
    Many thanks for running this excellent blog.
    Btw, I was confused about one aspect of GrandCentral. If I have registered my landline, cellphone, and office numbers and I get an incoming call from a number that GC has never seen before, how does GC know where to forward that call? It could be my best friend, who recently changed their home phone number.