Google finally launched its long-awaited voice service, aptly named Google Voice. It's an outgrowth of a service it acquired last year, Grand Central, which gives you one number for all your telephone needs. When people call this number, all the phones you program into the system are called simultaneously. So no matter where you are, you can be reached on the phone, and even better, you only have one number to give out.
What makes this even more interesting is not the system, but the fact that Google is making it free.
Current services on the market such as Onebox from J2 Global, Gotvmail, Virtual PBX and Ring Central and Skype offer various degrees of functionality to help you better manage how you receive phone calls and the annoying voice mails that come with them.
Google Voice, however, offers much more than many of them (listening to voice mail as it's being left and deciding whether to answer) and it's free.
One difference between Google Voice and many of the other services is that Google Voice doesn't give you one number with extensions, which you could use with a multi-person company. Google Voice is ideal for the solo entrepreneur who wants to manage a single telephone line.
In the future, Google could offer a "business" version to enable account management and multiple phone numbers for one company.
How does this affect your business?
Google is offering a number of services for free, including Google Docs which competes with Microsoft Office Live Workspace (also free), Cisco's Webex WebOffice (fee), HyperOffice (fee) and dozens of other file-sharing and collaboration services.
The question you need to ask is whether you should (or can) trust your business to Google. My answer is yes. But here's some more information to help you make your own decision.
Many executives have told me that Google is great when it comes to engineering but will struggle to grow any viable business services beyond its free services because it can't (or won't) offer the level of support businesses demand.
When there's a problem affecting a business service, your customers will want to call or e-mail you and will expect quick support. Google's response to this, I suspect, would be that their products are so simple to use that just about anyone can use the product right out of the box. But some products might require a bit of technical aptitude.
Intuit has this should-be-easy-enough-right-out-of-the-box policy for the most part. The difference is that Intuit's products--QuickBooks--are not only very easy to use, but also come with a range of support options.
Google has thousands of happy Google Apps corporate e-mail customers and has various other fee-based services, like its security service, acquired from Postini.
For free services like Google Voice, try it out (right now it's only for existing customers) and see how you like it. I think there's nothing wrong with free as long as it works well. People say you get what you pay for, but I've used many free products, including Skype for years, and they work quite well.
Ramon Ray is Entrepreneur.com's "Tech Basics" columnist and editor of Smallbiztechnology.com. He's the author ofTechnology Solutions for Growing Businesses and serves on the board of directors and the technology committee for the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.