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GrandCentral: The Voice One, Not The Web Services One

The purpose of the GrandCentral service was summed up in succinctly by David Pogue’s piece, “One Number That Will Ring All Your Phones.” That is, more or less, what GrandCentral does. You sign up, receive a new phone number, and tell GrandCentral about your existing lines: cell, office, home, Gizmo, whatever.

From that point forward, whenever someone calls your GrandCentral number, all of the phones you’ve configured will ring simultaneously. In my case, as an example, instead of trying my cell phone which generally doesn’t ring when I’m at home (a slab concrete infrastructure will do that), you can point yourself at my GrandCentral number which will ring my cell phone and my office line simultaneously. Simple, but quite useful. If you have more than one phone line, anyway. If you only have one number, there are still some useful perks but the value is diminished.

Following Raven’s recommendation, I’ve been testing the service out for a couple of weeks and thought I’d do a quick Q&A in the event that any of you are interested – and several of you have already asked about it.

Q: Any disclaimers?
A: Not that I’m aware of. I’m unaware (but curious) of what GrandCentral’s underlying infrastructure is composed of, but I don’t see anything to disclose.

Q: Let’s start with the question on everyone’s mind – is the service free?
A: Currently, yes. And even in future, GrandCentral is promising to have a free version. This is what their FAQ says on the subject:

Yes, we’re excited to say that we will always offer a free version of GrandCentral, even after beta. Our free version will include unlimited inbound minutes, unlimited voicemail (up to 30 days old), and access to all of our core features.

During beta, we’re giving everyone unlimited access to our premium features. In exchange, all we ask is that you send us your feedback (good or bad) to [email protected] We’ll read every comment.

Whether or not that’s a good idea is open to question.

Q: What do you mean?
A: Well, telephony’s a technology burdened with vastly different expectations in terms of uptime. So much so that “dial-tone” levels of service are a common euphemism for serious uptime – whether you agree with it or not. Contrast this with, say, email, which most of us could afford to lose for a while (or in my case, permanently). Given this expectation, GrandCentral is likely to be judged in large part by how available the service is; thus far, I haven’t experienced any outages, but two folks I know have. One of them contacted customer service in a live chat session during one of the outages, and was told “it’s a beta.” While true, it’s probably not the best way of delivering that message. Fortunately, they eventually expect to roll out for pay, premium services. The question will become how continuing to make available a free service impacts – or doesn’t – GrandCentral’s ability to keep everything running smoothly. I don’t know the answer to that yet, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt in the meantime.

Q: Is the service at all related to the GrandCentral web service-ish firm?
A: Tim O’Reilly seems to indicate that the answer is no, saying “I was on the board of the company formerly known as Grand Central, which is connected to this one via its name and its primary investor, Halsey Minor.”

Q: Apart from the whole one number thing, what does GrandCentral do for you?
A: As with many next generation telephony services, it’s got a lot of bells and whistles. Take voicemail, as an example. Similar to CallWave, which I still employ on my cell phone, it does all of the basics. Records voicemails digitally, makes them available on the web, notifies you that you have them and so on. But it also lets you record custom greetings by entry in your address book – friends might hear an informal greeting, while business contacts get something more professional. Speaking of professionalism, all the work folks in the audience are missing out on one of the more gratuitous features: ringshare. This lets you change the usual ringing sound heard while dialing with music of your choice (note to Linux users, for some reason the Flash interface to upload tracks doesn’t work – try a Windows machine – and yes, they’re aware of the problem). So while my friends and family might hear M. Ward or Pearl Jam while they’re waiting for GrandCentral to try and find me, you folks miss out, because that wouldn’t be “professional” :)

Q: Apart from the voicemail and messaging, does GrandCentral have more sophisticated features, say rules based call direction?
A: Surprisingly, the calling rules portion of the application is fairly primitive. You can take your existing numbers and give them the ability to ring certain numbers only, but that’s about it. Apart from the option to not ring your Home number during business hours, there’s very little time based processing you can do, such as letting certain select callers ring through at any hour, but directing late night calls to voicemail. They do, however, offer some sort of blacklist/rules based telemarketing filtering, but I have little experience with this.

Q: How about call screening?
A: Yup, it does that. You can turn it off completely, screen only blocked callers, or screen everyone. Right now I’ve got it screening everyone, meaning that when you call me I get a message saying, “Call from YOUR NAME (often hilariously mispronounced – it especially has trouble with my friend Marguerite’s name), press 1 to accept, 2 to send to voicemail and so on.” I’ll probably just screen blocked callers after I’m finished testing the service.

Q: What does the service mean, realistically, for the average person?
A: Well, if the discussion at our last Denver Tech Meetup is any indication, it may mean nothing to many of you. But I already have a couple of friends who are in and out of their respective offices that are thinking about using it so that myself and their other friends don’t have to keep calling multiple numbers to track them down. It should be of significant value also to folks like myself that tend to be fairly mobile workers; consultants, analysts and the like. If I’d had this last summer, as an example, no one would have had to bother trying to remember my summer office number – I could just have GrandCentral patch you through seamlessly. The short answer is that many of you won’t care about this at all, but those of you that do will find it very interesting, I think.

Q: What about privacy issues?
A: Tim raised this issue when he talked about the service, and it’s a very legitimate issue. As more of our information gets sucked up into servers that we do not control directly, the risks for intentional or even unintentional mischief go up. At least in theory. I’m fairly sanguine about the risks, however, because in this case I’m not outsourcing anything that couldn’t be discovered if, say, I lost my cellphone. Your mileage may vary, however, as always.

To their credit, GrandCentral’s got an FAQ just around privacy and security, and their privacy policy looked decent after a quick once over.

Q: What’s the catch?
A: The catch is very simple: it’s (yet) another phone number. If you’re like me, you’ll have to drag a certain percentage of your contacts kicking and screaming to learn a new number (in a couple of cases, I just changed the number on their cellphones). And until everyone cuts over to the new number – assuming you can be successful in transitioning everyone – you’ll have voicemail in two or more places: the GrandCentral voicemail and the voicemail of your land or cell lines.

Oh, and they don’t do international for the folks in the audience who are reading this from abroad. I think there’s a yet in there, however, as it sounds like they have plans to launch that service soon.

Q: Once you’ve finished testing the service, do you intend to continue using it?
A: Barring something catastrophic, I do. I’ll watch the transition from free beta service to premium offering very carefully, but it would appear they’re doing what they need to do there. It’s been very convenient for me on multiple occasions, and even some of my luddite friends have had positive things to say about it. It has its occasional glitches – one call this morning rang the cellphone 30 seconds ahead of the office line, which went to voicemail after I picked it up mid-ring – but the reliability thus far has been within acceptable tolerances. It’s likely, in fact, that within the next few weeks I’ll be repointing our toll free line – 866.RED.MONK – over to the GrandCentral service rather than my office landline. This should help you all find me easily even after I’ve completed my traditional summer migration back to my pseudo-home state, Maine.

Q: What is your GrandCentral number? Can anyone use it?
A: Sure, knock yourself out. My number is 617.395.5685 (chose a Boston area code because that’s what my cell area code is, and that’s the number I’ve had longest). And if you’re bored, just try the form below. You plug your number in, click the button and it will ring your phone and connect you to me – automagically.

Categories: VOIP.

  • http://www.collins.net.pr/blog Dean Collins

    Whilst I’m definitely the target audience for Grand Central (eg a geek) but unfortunately for them I use Asterisk open source ip pabx at home so I have all that functionality on my existing numbers.

    what I do like is their attitude to web services, there should be more of these out there, for too long people have been saying users wont move to advance features from standard dial tone….well they will if you give them a cool enough reason for it and not just ‘gimmicks’.

    BTW for those of you looking for advanced features you might also want to check out ITSP’s who offer Iotums Relevance Engine, it takes the GrandCentral concept an extra step.

    Cheers,
    Dean
    http://www.collins.net.pr/blog

  • http://redmonk.com/sogrady sogrady

    Dean: should have mentioned that i’ve already been down that route, having set up Asterisk with some help from Trixbox a little while back. as you mention, the available VOIP software offers most if not all of the bells and whistles that GrandCentral does, and many it does not.

    my primary issue with Asterisk actually nothing to do with Asterisk – it was a self-hosting thing. i travel a lot, and while my cable modem is fairly reliable my routers aren’t. they tend to flake out regularly, and when they did that while i was away from home everything went away.

    so i’m going with GrandCentral for much the same reason i colo our production hardware: i need network availability and uptime to be someone else’s problem ;)

    but if you have that, i agree, Asterisk is an excellent solution.

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