Technology

GrandCentral: Where Six Become One


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Editor's Rating: star rating

This nifty online service allows consumers to manage up to six phone numbers easily—for free. All this and cool features, too?

A few months ago I made a list of all the phone numbers I have. It disturbed me a bit.

I started with the usual trio of home, office, and cell. Then I added a BlackBerry (RIMM) that I use primarily for e-mail, but also the occasional call when my Motorola (MOT) KRZR runs out of power. A second phone line at home, one at a vacation home, and a fax line at home, brought the total to seven phone numbers. But there's more. I use Internet-based calling services once in a while through Skype (EBAY) and SIPphone's Gizmo Project. Gulp. Nine.

Even if you don't have that many, this proliferation of 10-digit numbers can get complicated and frustrating. Perhaps the following sounds familiar: You come home from work to find a voice mail from a call you wish you could have taken in person. Worse, you'd like to return the call, but the person is no longer at work. You don't have one another's cell numbers, so now you're doomed to a game of phone tag.

To the purported rescue comes a free service called GrandCentral. The service lets you sign up for yet another new phone number! But when dialed, this number can make as many as six of your phones ring all at the same time. This way, you'll miss fewer calls, while callers won't have to hunt you down, dialing one number after another.

Good with Numbers

GrandCentral offers local phone numbers in every state except Alaska, Hawaii, and Maine, but not all area codes are available. The ever-popular 212 in New York, for example, is not available. But as with many Web-based phone services, you're perfectly free to choose area codes other than your own. If you live in Round Rock, Tex. (area code 512), but want a number that's local to Portland, Ore. (area code 503), that's fine.

After getting your new number, you enter your "old" ones on GrandCentral's site, setting rules governing which phones ring when. In my case, anyone calling the new number would ring my office in New York, my home (but not during business hours), and my cell phone. I also entered my assorted other numbers, but didn't enable them. If ever I want them to ring, I just sign into GrandCentral and change the settings.

But the features don't stop there. GrandCentral also lets you screen calls and choose whether to answer or send them to voice mail. There are settings to decide which numbers to screen and when. A caller who gets screened is asked to state his or her name before the call is passed on to you. On picking up, you hear the name and then decide whether you'd like to talk or send the call to voice mail. And get this: You can press *3 to listen as they leave a message.

The voice-mail features are pretty cool. Messages are stored on GrandCentral's server, so you can play them from a Web browser on any computer. There's also an option to receive e-mail or wireless text messages alerting you to new voice-mail messages.

Hits and Misses

Another feature I found useful was recording your own voice messages and forwarding them via e-mail to one or more people, saving the time it would take to write a lengthy note. You just call your GrandCentral number, record the message, and then forward it from the Web site. Recipients click a link that takes them to a Web site where they listen to the message.

On GrandCentral's site, you can dial calls to contacts in your address book. Click a "call" button, then select the phone on which you'll be doing the talking. Your phone rings, and when you pick up, you hear the usual ringing to the other number. Unfortunately, you can't use this feature to set up a conference call.

So what's wrong with GrandCentral? Not much, but a few things are missing. First, you can't take one of your existing phone numbers and make it your GrandCentral number. GrandCentral also can't give you an international phone number, and you can't forward your calls to an overseas phone. The company says it's working on these issues. Though the need is rare these days, you also can't receive a fax at your GrandCentral number.

As cool as it is, GrandCentral is still in beta, which means it's not fully baked. But even partially baked, it lets you use your many phones in ways you never thought possible. And you can't argue with the price: The basic service is free. The company plans a premium level of service costing $9.99 a month. GrandCentral says it will continue to offer a free version, though it's unclear whether any of the current features will be shifted to the premium service.

Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com.

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