Google has unveiled a new feature that will enable users to make phone calls from within their Gmail accounts using the Google Voice service.
The new service builds on Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) voice and video chat for Gmail, introduced in 2008, by using the Gmail interface to initiate calls to people's mobile and wireline phones. Previously, both users had to be in front of their computers.
"Given that most of us don't spend all day in front of our computers, we thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if you could call people directly on their phones?' " Google software engineer Robin Schriebman wrote in a blog post announcing the new feature.
The move to extend its IP-based communications service from the PC to the phone puts Google in direct competition with Internet calling companies like Skype, which is gearing up to go public in a $100 million IPO.
The integration into Gmail could also be a play to further entrench users' Google accounts as the hub of the Web, syncing the VoIP service with video chat, e-mail and other social features. The new feature might also offer one more clue about what Google's long-rumored social-networking service might look like, which is expected to arrive as the search giant's most direct challenge to Facebook to date.
Google is offering the new calling service at attractive rates, with calls to the United States and Canada to remain free through at least the end of the year, and billing international calls according to the rate schedule for Voice, the company's multi-purpose Internet telephony product.
With Voice, users could register their phone numbers (or sign up to receive a new one) and enjoy features such as voicemail transcription, searchable voicemail and SMS messaging via e-mail.
Users with a unique Google Voice number will be able to receive calls from within their Gmail accounts, the company said.
Google is now extending many of those features to the new calling feature, which will begin appearing as an app in the chat pane of users' Gmail accounts as the product rolls out this week.
Google is looking to expand the product internationally, and suggested that it is also considering a business version.
Google could continue to offer domestic calls for free if it makes sufficient revenue from international charges. Calls to international landlines are as cheap as two cents a minute in the case of countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany, though rates increase sharply for calls placed to mobile phones in those countries.