Google Voice lets you forward calls to multiple numbers that ring at once, listen in to voicemail as it is being recorded, and bounce strangers into a confirmation stage, all for free. But it could not handle placing calls - until now. Google is rolling out computer-based VoIP calling.
This update offers free VoIP calls within the United States and Canada, although the feature will initially be available only to U.S. Google users. Calls placed to other countries are charged at reasonably low international rates.
Before this update, you would use Google Voice more as a hub for communication with a Google Voice phone number as the entry point. The service lets you associate phone numbers with an account, and choose behavior based on Caller ID, time of day, and other factors for what happens when someone calls the Google Voice number. It also offers free U.S. text messaging, and voicemail - along with hilariously weird voicemail transcription. (A message from my wife the other day read, "We've had a knife... Mark emergency in Indiana.")
You could place calls that would ring on one of your associated numbers, but you still had to have a phone nearby to make that work. (See "Google Voice Opens to All Americans," 22 June 2010.)
But because Google seemingly forgets which product is which, the site you use to make Google Voice calls is... Gmail. Yes, that's right. The webmail app that brought you Google Buzz and Google Chat (audio, video, and text) now brings you phone calls. Why not within, say, Google Voice? It's hard to understand that decision. (Sure, Google Chat is found within Gmail, and activating "real" phone calls there makes sense, but not as the first and only method to use it.)
You need to install Google's voice and video plug-in to use Google Voice in Gmail. Log in to your Gmail account, click Settings, and then the Chat tab, and follow the instructions there. With that set up, you will see a Call Phones item in Google Chat once Google activates the service for your account.
Google's new offering competes directly with Skype, which charges fees to have an inbound phone number (or more than one) associated with your Skype account, and has a fixed-rate U.S./Canada calling plans. Skype does offer one notable advantage so far: it's available for iOS devices, and Google Voice still remains missing there.