[Update on August 1: Chad, the author of the Firefox extension I refer to below, commented and asked for details of the problem I had. His comment and my answer are available for this post. In a nutshell, I reinstalled the extension and this time it’s working for me and not causing any problems. Great responsiveness from a software author, and a great tool for GrandCentral users Thanks Chad!]
GrandCentral is a service that gives you a virtual phone number that can be pointed at one or more real phone numbers. If someone phones the GrandCentral number, all the real phones get the call. There are a lot of extra features, too, like e-mail notification of calls, web voice-mail, switching which phone number you’re using while a call is underway, and more. But you probably can’t get it because it’s in an invitation-only beta period.
Unfortunately, GrandCentral has been “in beta” for quite a while now. I got my account in May 2007. I never seriously used it because I wasn’t sure it would last, and I also wasn’t sure I wanted to be quite that easily reached. But I saw a tip on Lifehacker the other day about it and gave it a try. It turns out that you can call anybody from your phone for free using GrandCentral. Just put the person’s phone number in your address book and you’ll see a Call button. Click it, and GrandCentral first calls you. When you answer, it announces that’s it’s placing your call, and it calls the number you selected. It works perfectly. I don’t know whether this works for calls outside the US, but I doubt it.
This is handy for me to call the office when I’m working from home. I prefer to use my home phone instead of my cell phone due to coverage issues. But our office is a long-distance call, so I use the 800 number. Which connects me to the receptionist who I have to keep bothering in order to connect to the right extension. Now with GrandCentral I call the other employee’s direct-dial number from my home phone for free, and don’t have to take up the receptionist’s time.
This trick does require that the person be in your GrandCentral address book, which is a bit of a pain. The Lifehacker tip was about a Firefox extension that would let you make this kind of call to any number on any web page, but the extension didn’t work for me and caused some other problems in Firefox, so I removed it. If I could upload a file of phone numbers to the address book this wouldn’t be much of a hassle, but I can’t. GrandCentral makes you enter each contact individually on the web.
Which brings me to my complaints. GrandCentral now belongs to Google, and they don’t seem to be doing anything with it. It’s not integrated with any other Google services (like my GMail contact list). It’s got an awful flash-heavy user interface that makes every navigation step slow and difficult. And it doesn’t have any of Google’s normal thoughtful touches (like being able to upload an address book).
I can’t see how anybody can make money with the GrandCentral service, at least as it now exists, which may be the problem. Perhaps it’s almost an orphan product inside Google. It wasn’t even mentioned at the Google IO meeting. Too bad, because it can be really useful. I guess I’ll use it while I wait to see what Google does with it.