Google Just Killed Landline Phones

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) tried and failed to overthrow the business model of mobile phones with the Nexus One Web store. If at first you don't succeed, skydiving really isn't your sport -- and Google is back in the air again. This time, the target is the traditional landline phone.

Now you can call landline and mobile phones for free or cheap, right from the Gmail window on your computer. After a couple of false starts and tantalizing hints, you no longer need an actual phone to make calls through Google's services: The new voice calls in Gmail feature removes yet another obstacle to dropping your landline subscription, as this solution will work well for anyone with a decent Internet connection but spotty or nonexistent cell phone coverage at home. I can also see road warriors using this instead of expensive hotel phones or limited cell phone minutes.

The service is available today, though you need to install a voice-handler plug-in for your browser before enjoying the convenience of free long-distance and cheap international calls from your computer. Google doesn't expect to make a killing on mostly free and ad-less voice calls, but anything that extends the reach of those pinpoint-marketing Google logins is A-OK with Big G.

In typical Google fashion, there is still plenty of room for improvement. For example, you may need to log out of your Gmail account and back in again before the "call phone" icon shows up in your list of chat contacts, and there's a settings screen for changing details like voice mail access from the new interface, but I get an "invalid number" error when trying to change it.

If this were an Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) product, you'd have to wait another few months while its engineers iron out every conceivable wrinkle in the experience, but Google prefers to launch early and kill the bugs as they show up. If you're holding your Gmail interface wrong, there will be a fix for that problem in no time flat.

This is potentially a very damaging blow to land-locked phone line operators, from national giants like Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) and AT&T (NYSE: T  ) to local phenoms such as Frontier Communications (NYSE: FTR  ) or Windstream (NYSE: WIN  ) . Landline customers are already switching to cell phones only in increasing numbers, and this service covers one of the last remaining blind spots for that trend.

Did you take a break from this article to sign up for your very own Google Voice account, or do you hate the very idea of putting phone calls in the hands of Google? Mix the venom and perfume in the comments below.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. Google is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. The Fool owns shares of Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


Read/Post Comments (17) | Recommend This Article (31)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2010, at 2:34 PM, Melaschasm wrote:

    Google is late to the party. However, this is one more nail in the coffin of land line phones.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2010, at 3:15 PM, gslusher wrote:

    Several problems:

    1. What about the emergency location services REQUIRED by US law for any phone carrier--cell or landline? Can Google's system provide that? There's no real way that they can tell where a particular computer is.

    2. What happens when the main power in a house goes out? Often, the phones will still work, as they have a separate power source, unless there's a major disaster. Even cell phone systems can go down when the power quits. Hope you don't have a fireor medical emergency while the power is out. (Of course, the fire may cut off the power.)

    3. What happens when internet access goes out? That happens to me at least once a month, for a period of up to 3-4 hours. POOF! There goes your phone service.

    These are NOT trivial. They're so important that there are laws regarding the availability of phone service in emergencies. Google already got into legal trouble because they initially refused to connect to regular phones in some remote or rural areas.

    Also, from the article, "Now you can call landline and mobile phones for free or cheap..."

    Read that again and again. Google's service calls landline (or mobile) phones. How can it "kill" the very phones it has to connect to?

    Just how is this substantially different from Skype? (Skype has the same problems, but they don't advertise their service as a substitute for landlines and they connect to any phone in the US.)

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2010, at 3:48 PM, jbtheone wrote:

    Interesting point made about internet access. Take a look at FTR, they just purchased a lot of area from Verizon. Not to install landlines but to be able to offer internet access to a large part of rural America. This is a virtually untapped area of expansion. Less than 25% of rural America has access to highspeed internet access. I just can not believe that any internet phone service will work on a dial-up connection, so another incentive to install high speed access.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2010, at 3:54 PM, jpwallis01 wrote:

    I believe your missing the point that many people are cell phone only. I believe many landline contracts only exist because they are bundled through t.v. and internet. There are people still around that may need them and some that dont have good enough broadband internet access use this service efficiently. Landlines are dying, they are a thing of the past. Almost everyone has a cell phone lying around that can call 911. We have been dealing w/ phone lines going dead for years. I dont think landlines are going to survive based on emergency issues, we have other options available.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2010, at 4:18 PM, catoismymotor wrote:

    In our case we need a landline because our cells will only work on the top floor of the house. Sometimes we get a signal through downstairs but not enough to be reliable. Outside the house we must walk uphill to the mailbox to call out. It's a pain, but the house is nice. Hopefully one day this issue will work itself out.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2010, at 5:14 PM, djmcklevykev wrote:

    Its actually cheaper to order FIOS with the Landline phone option than without one, because you get better discounts, promotions, credits, etc... so in FIOS territory, I don't see the Landline going away. Its true that most people have cellphones but today's bundles ensure that most people will continue to have landlines, whether they are used as a backup or a primary means of communication. At the end of the day, the form of the signal (be it voice, video, or data) is really just detail, as it's all going to eventually pass through the exact same IP network. What matters in the end is who connects you to that network, not what they "label" the service.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2010, at 6:05 PM, solarpowerman wrote:

    The Motley Fool does it again! Big negative headline withOUT substantiation in the article! How can you "sell" premium advice when article after article has little or no credibility. Guess someone pays The Fool......... ONLY FOOLS!

    Think this one will be delayed...... a bit more than 15 minutes.........

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2010, at 6:17 PM, damastr wrote:

    Agree with and share solarpowerman's frustration. The title is absolute non-sense. Isn't magic-jack already providing free long distance for a buck fifty a month? Isn't Vonage providing free International long distance for about $15 a month. Why would such a service where one has to go through the hassle of actually using your computer to make a call (with all the internet issues as pointed out by gsgusher above).

    MF, disappoint again!!

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2010, at 11:38 PM, Observero0 wrote:

    [damastr

    Isn't magic-jack already providing free long distance for a buck fifty a month? Isn't Vonage providing free International long distance for about $15 a month. ] =========================

    Perhaps I'm missing something, damastr, but charging for a service does not make it "free". You may want to re-think the way this service is communicated.

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2010, at 11:08 AM, millsbob wrote:

    holey moley, yet Another article by someone who's never actually Used voip as their main connection to the world, just tried Skype once to call a friend in Sweden.

    look, i gave up my land years ago and tried to replace it with skype. i've used it on cable, dsl, wifi with my iPhone, etc. the quality is fine if you're a fish and used to everything sounding like you're in an aquarium. i still have a paid account and use it in desperation (overseas, mostly), but even my cell phone here in Edge territory with Maybe 2-3 bars if i'm lucky is better quality.

    love most of your articles, Anders, but in this case, the future isn't here yet.

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2010, at 6:10 PM, damastr wrote:

    @Observero0, I know charging for a service does not make it free. But $20 a year is as close to free as one can get. And it's more convenient than using a computer to call. The point is with all the options available, how can you call this new google service as something that will kill landlines? Of course some people will use it -- they always do, but many won't. But at least do not project this thing as some kind of disruptive game changing technology..

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2010, at 6:53 AM, TMFZahrim wrote:

    @millsbob, I'm afraid you're barking up the wrong tree. I've had Vonage, FiOS, and currently Brighthous (Time Warner Cable subsidiary) VOIP as my my landline at different points, and they all sound and act exactly like regular copper lines. Except that I could take the Vonage with me and keep the number, of course -- sort of convenient.

    And, I use Skype, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger etcetera all the time to talk to friends and family in Sweden of all places. My wife does the same to Guatemala. I've used nothing but Skype and Google Voice to call home for years. The aquarium effect is rare these days, and this Google phone service from computer to landline hasn't exhibited it yet. Your mileage may vary, but VOIP works just fine for me.

    Anders

  • Report this Comment On August 30, 2010, at 7:43 PM, rxblair wrote:

    UMM

    It seems to me that all of these VOIP and VOIP-like providers are still failing to disclose the the additional costs associated with the High Speed Internet Access required by all of them. Whenever I add-in the charges for High Speed Internet access via a broadcast cable or satellite TV provider, or subscribed to from the Local Exchange Carrier (the "Phone Company"), all of the advertised savings disappear.

    When including costs for High Speed Internet Access, I'd like to know if anyone has ever actually saved any money? If so, how and how much?

  • Report this Comment On September 03, 2010, at 12:16 PM, 0123Abc wrote:

    Is Google Call Phone secure and private? Thanks, anyone.

  • Report this Comment On September 04, 2010, at 2:58 PM, brucedieter wrote:

    Great free conversations anywhere in the world when they have Skype. Video and audio are superb.

  • Report this Comment On October 05, 2010, at 1:32 PM, cybergrace wrote:

    Actually you can get a a portable MiFi hotspot from Virgin Mobile for only $40 a month. AND this hotspot works for up to 5 devices. You can have Internet for your computer and phone calls for $40/month. AND it is only a month-to-month contract, not the 2-year contract required for most hotspot devices.

    In reality I do not know how the quality of the calls is over the MiFi. I'm optimistic though as Virgin uses Sprint's lines. However, I am dropping my iPhone and trying it as AT&T quality is awful (for me). I can't afford a landline and am never home anyways. Anyone else ever tried this type of solution? Know of any other cheap hotspots?

    I suspect the issue of quality will be tied to city and WiFi provider, so everyone please say what city and WiFi or cell phone provider you are talking about. Let's figure this out!

    - Broke New Yorker

  • Report this Comment On October 05, 2010, at 1:35 PM, cybergrace wrote:

    Oh, with Google Voice ALL calls in and to the U.S. are free. Skype charges a small fee when you call a landline or mobile (as opposed to someone else using a browser on their mobile phone or their computer). But yes, for some folks Google Voice sounds better and for others Skype does. Intrepid investigators, please say your city when you write in.

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