Hands on With Grand Central – The Only Phone Number a Web Worker Needs?

David Pogue raved about it. Grand Central is getting some great buzz from high-profile web workers, and with good reason. What is Grand Central? Simply, it’s a web service/VOIP player that promises to be a single point of contact for all your voice communication needs.

It remains to be seen whether the service truly catches on as it inches out of its public beta phase. However, Grand Central is interesting because it breaks the hold our phone service providers have over our voice communications in a similar way that we were able to take control over our email out of the hands of our ISPs years ago. Remember when your dial-up service was from Earthlink or AOL so your personal email address was @earthlink.net or @aol.com?

If you changed ISPs, you had to change the way everyone in your address book contacted you electronically. Now, most of us have email addresses that stay with us no matter where or how we get our internet service. Among other things, Grand Central promises that you no longer have to worry about changing your public phone number when you change your phone service provider. For us nomads with instant message accounts, VOIP accounts and email addresses in addition to mobile and landline phone numbers…this can be a big deal.

There are other advantages here for the web worker.

With a blurry line between work and life because we work where we live, juggling phone lines is a hassle. In our home, my husband (who is also a web worker) has his personal cell phone, a Blackberry and a work landline. I have a cell phone and a Vonage virtual number in the area code of my employer. We also have a local Vonage number that’s our main family phone. On some days, our home sounds more like a switchboard with all the bells going. I often rely on caller ID to know whether “work-me” should be answering the phone formally, or “Mom-me” should be answering the phone with a casual, “Hello?”

With Grand Central, you can import your address book (from Outlook, Outlook Express, Yahoo, Gmai, CSV or vCard files). Set your contacts according to the categories they fit in your life, and the service takes care of the rest. If someone from your personal life is calling, the voicemail greeting can be set to be casual, “Hi, I can’t come to the phone right now, I’m running around with the kids. Leave a message and we’ll get back to you…” If someone from your work life is calling, the greeting can be more formal, “You’ve reached Barbara Jones at the Smith Company. I’m away from my desk right now so at the tone…”

To record a greeting, you click on the “Record New” link and select the phone that you want to use for the recording. Grand Central calls that number, and a voice guides you through the process from there.

Another great web worker feature in Grand Central is the ability to forward a call from one phone to another. How many times have you taken a call on your home phone as you’re about to run out the door? If you push the “*” button during the call, the other phones you’ve registered on your account will ring. Pick up the phone you want to continue talking on and go on your way. This will come in handy when my Vonage call quality is poor, which is most of the time these days.

Which brings me back to the first reason that Grand Central is interesting for web workers. With VOIP providers popping up and down, you can feel more comfortable “shopping around” for reliable service without dreading the hassle of porting your phone number around. Nearly 10 years ago, I registered a domain name and selected an email address that I’ve used as my primary address ever since. Many web host and ISP accounts have come and gone since then, but that email address prevails. It’s time for that to happen with phone numbers, isn’t it?

Grand Central is not without its downsides, at least in its current beta form (rumor has it that it will cost around $15/month for a full-featured account at launch, with a basic service always being free). It would be nice if Grand Central had a mobile interface. It doesn’t work at all from the HTML browser on my Windows Mobile phone, due to the site’s reliance on Flash. It does not allow multiple accounts to forward to the same number. So if my husband set up an account, he would not be able to forward to our home phone because I’m already using it on my account. That also means that you can’t set up a second account from a different area code that forwards to the same line.

What do you think of Grand Central? Are you interested in consolidating all your phones to one service?

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