Google announced today that it is offering the ability to make phone calls over the Internet via its popular Gmail service.
Unlike Google's nearly two-year-old Gmail voice and video chat feature, which gives users an audio and visual experience online, the new calling feature allows users to dial phone numbers. With this move, Google is competing with Skype, which has long dominated the market for Internet phone service.
"Starting today, you can call any phone right from Gmail," wrote Robin Schriebman, a Google software engineer in a blog post. "We've been testing this feature internally, and have found it to be useful in a lot of situations, ranging from making a quick call to a restaurant to placing a call when you're in an area with bad reception."
Schriebman explained that making a phone call through Gmail works just like using a normal phone. Users can click "Call Phone" at the top of their chat list and enter a number or a contact name. She added that calls to anyone in the U.S. and Canada will be free "at least for the rest of the year." She said "very low rates" have been set for calls to other countries.
So, does Google have the muscle to make Gmail a Skype-killer?
Skype, a seven-year-old service, is used by individuals and companies to make video and voice calls over the Internet. According to Skype, its users made 6.4 billion minutes of calls in the first half of 2010.
While Google may be starting out behind in this race, it has the benefit of its large Gmail user base.
"Skype could get hurt by this," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group. "Skype has been offering the ability to call land lines and cell phones for years now. But having it integrated into Google's Gmail and, assumedly, their other offerings down the road, is quite an extension for Google."
Olds added that Google, always on the lookout for new revenue streams, is aiming to expand its reach over its customers and to move into complementary markets that will generate more sales.
"Adding voice calls to their existing product set enhances the user experience and keeps people using Google apps longer and more frequently," Olds said. "It also keeps people from using another service like Skype, and it certainly may prompt some defections from Skype. Google definitely has the scale and reach to put a big dent in Skype if Google can deliver on the service side."
The voice calling feature is expected to be rolled out to U.S.-based users over the next few days, according to Google. Users will need to install Google's voice and video plug-in and watch for the "Call Phone" button to appear on their chat list.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is email@example.com.