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Google Chat a good call as phone option

Jane Pribek

Jane Pribek

I’ve written before about lawyers’ increasingly common use of Gmail. I’ve also written about the cost-effectiveness and ease-of-use of Skype, for lawyers and everybody else.

A new Google product, Gmail Voice and Video Chat, combines the benefits of both.

On Aug. 25, Google unveiled its latest Gmail feature, which allows you to call landline or mobile phones within the U.S. and Canada from Gmail for free.

You need to have a Gmail account. If you own the increasingly popular Droid smartphone, since it runs the Android operating system, owned by Google, you have a Gmail account whether you wanted one or not.

It takes about two minutes to set up a Gmail account. (You can now send your free and cheap law office management ideas to both janepribek@gmail.com and janepribek@bellsouth.net.)

You’ll also need a microphone and speaker or headphones, and of course a broadband connection to the Internet.

You then download the Voice and Video Chat plug-in, quit all open browser windows, and install the plug-in. That sounds complicated, but it really wasn’t — it was just a matter of following a series of prompts.

Then you sign into your Gmail account (iGoogle or orkut are possibilities, too, but I kept it simple and used Gmail).

Go to “Chat” on the left-hand side of the Gmail screen. Look for the tab that says “Call phone.” There’s a green phone symbol located next to this line. Click on “Call phone,” agree to Google’s terms of use, and dial. Press the blue “Call” button at the base of the dial box and your call will start dialing.

On my very first try, not only was the sound quality of my call to the cellphone of my vacationing husband very good — it was better than when I called him via my Voice Over IP phone, ooma. (Ahhh, separate vacations, the key to any happy marriage! Of course, together vacations are great, too — I like all vacations. But I digress).

I could’ve “Skyped” him. But I made that first Gmail call in the evening hours, when I knew he’d be relaxing and away from his computer. That’s a limitation of Skype. I could’ve “Skyped out” to his cell, but that’s not free. Cheap, yes, it’s two cents per minute; but free, no, and all things being equal, I prefer free over cheap.

Since I have a Google Voice number, that’s the number that displays on the caller ID. My Google Voice number is 414-375-9759. I chose a Milwaukee area code even though I live in Tennessee for a number of reasons, among them being the hope that people are more likely to pick up if they see an area code they recognize.

For now, you can only make free Gmail calls from your computer and not your mobile phone. And, to receive calls within Gmail, you have to have a Google Voice account (also free).

You can additionally receive video calls placed from one computer to another in Gmail, iGoogle or orkut whenever you are signed in to chat after you have downloaded the Voice and Video Chat plug-in.

I didn’t try this extra step — mostly because I can do the exact same thing with Skype, and if it isn’t broke…

In my research for this article, I learned that Google has only promised to keep the Gmail calls free for the rest of 2010. I cannot imagine Google will suddenly start charging for them on Jan. 1, 2011, but anything’s possible.

Now, the bigger question: Do you want to use Gmail to call clients?

Perusing Google’s various privacy statements, my impression is that Google doesn’t sell anyone’s personal information to third-parties, and that it only provides advertisers with “aggregated, nonpersonal information such as the number of times their ad was clicked.”

Is that secure enough? That’s a decision for you and your clients. But my guess is, most clients won’t have a problem with it, and may already be calling you via Gmail. For that matter, are your calls any safer with Verizon, Sprint, U.S. Cellular, etc. or even good old Ma Bell?

But again, it all depends on your comfort level.

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