Google made a news splash when it introduced a new VoIP functionality to Gmail yesterday. Gmail users based in the United States and Canada can now dial and accept calls right from their computer—a seemingly cool feature and thrifty alternative to placing long-distance calls (international rates start at 2 cents per minute).
But let's put the news in context. How does this new offering fit with Google's business model? How will it fare with the public users and businesses? And will it kill Skype? Charles Golvin, principal analyst with Forrester Research, weighs in with five facts that you should remember about Google's recent announcement.
1. Communications are increasingly integrated.
In the past, you'd likely log into your instant messaging application to IM your friends. If you wanted to call or text someone, you'd use your cell phone, and if you wanted to send an e-mail, you'd use your computer. Those silos are disappearing now, Golvin says.
"All of these are being integrated into one experience. The mechanics of communicating are less important—now it's more focused on letting you have the communications you want in the mode that you want them."
Rather than being revolutionary, Google's integration of Voice with Gmail is a natural progression, Golvin says. Instead of using multiple means to communicate, you can place and receive phone calls, send text messages and e-mail your contacts, all from one central location—your Gmail account.
2. It's a Convenience, Not a Game Changer.
What's the driving reason for people to use the integrated feature? Convenience, Golvin says. So don't expect mobile users to give up their devices anytime soon.
"You need a lot of incentive to cause consumers to change their behavior," he says. "People have cell phones with plans that have an abundance of minutes and special features, so it would take something drastic to make people change their ways."
Instead, people will use voice calling in Gmail when it's convenient, he says. For example, if you're having a back-and-forth e-mail correspondence with someone, it might be easier to click a few buttons and speak to him through your computer to resolve your conversation quickly. The same goes for those times you leave your mobile phone on your coffee table—when you get to work, scroll through your Gmail contacts and place a call.
"I don't see people using this too frequently," Golvin says. "It's just a convenience, not a game changer."
3. As a business move, it's all about advertising.
Right now, domestic calls are free using the feature. So what's Google getting out of it? "When it comes to their business model, there's always one answer for Google—advertising," he says.
Google Voice gives users the options to have their voicemails transcribed and sent to their Gmail accounts. The same is true with text messages—enable these features, and you can access your messages and search old ones through your Gmail account. This opens up the possibility that Google could crawl these messages—just like it does e-mail—and display targeted ads based on the text from your conversations.
4. Skype is here to stay.
Since Google announced Voice for Gmail, the Internet has been buzzing about how this will affect Skype. According to Golvin, he doesn't expect Google's move to severely impact the company.
"The impact on Skype wouldn't be on Skype usage, it would be on the subset of people who use SkypeOut, which is a small portion of Skype's base." SkypeOut is the service that lets you make phone calls from your computer to anyone with a cell phone. The basic Skype service allows computer-to-computer calling.
"You have to look at what drove Skype adoption in the first place. By and large, it was cost avoidance," Golvin says. "The delta in pricing for international calling between SkypeOut verses the pricing Google can offer is measured in tenths of pennies. It's not a huge difference, so people will go with what they're comfortable with."
5. It won't soon be part of Enterprise Google Apps.
Don't hold your breath waiting for this offering to become part of Google Apps for the enterprise, Golvin says. For a consumer, masking a change in a phone number is relatively simple, but for enterprises it's more complicated.
"You have public branch exchanges and systems with all sorts of features—changing this in enterprises is a huge undertaking," he says. "You need to support and supply a whole range of features that get integrated in many ways. I don't think it's an unreasonable assumption that it'll come to Google Apps later down the road, but it's a much bigger challenge right now."
Kristin Burnham covers Consumer Technology, SaaS, Social Networking and Web 2.0 for CIO.com. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kmburnham. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Kristin at email@example.com.