GrandCentral hits the spotlight

March 15, 2007

GrandCentralTechmeme points us to a great write-up on GrandCentral by David Pogue in today’s New York Times.

I’ve been using GrandCentral for awhile now, and David’s article does a nice job of introducing “what it’s all about”

In short, GrandCentral gives you one local phone number — “for life” — and then slices and dices calls into that number to provide an amazing array of features:

  • Incoming calls can be set to ring all of your numbers simultaneously — your office line, your cell phone, your home number, etc. You can control which numbers ring on a time-of-day basis, or on a caller by caller basis.
  • When a call comes in, GrandCentral identifies the caller ID — if it can match it to an entry in your contact list, it gets the name from there, otherwise it asks the caller to give their name while it “attempts to locate you”
  • When you answer the call, GrandCentral tells you who it is, and gives you the option of taking the call, taking the call and recording it, sending the caller to voicemail, or sending it to voicemail while you listen in — in the latter case, you can pick up the call mid-message if you like, just like on your old answering machine.
  • In mid call, you can start or stop recording if you like, by pressing a key. You can also press a key to cause all of your numbers to ring again — and pick up the call where you left off, but on a different line. (Convenient for switching from your office phone to a cell phone, for instance).
  • You can assign voicemail greetings, and even “ringback tones” (the “ringing” the caller hears while the system is calling you) on a caller-by-caller or group-by-group basis, by recording a message or uploading an MP3, respectively.
  • Voicemail notices are delivered by email, and by SMS to your cell phone.
  • Calls can be screened against GrandCentrals growing list of telemarketers, and dumped to voicemail – or a phony disconnect notice. You can add your own list of annoying callers to this list as well.

All of this is driven through a very well-thought-out web front end, where you can change your settings, listen to voicemail, review your calls, edit your contact list (or import it from a variety of address books or organizer programs and services), and even place a call.

Other features allow you post recordings online or mail them, and place a “click to call” button on a web page where a user can enter their number, and GrandCentral will call you, then them.

Oh yeah — and all of these features are free. At least for now, while GrandCentral is in beta. Indications are that the basic service will remain free, with a “fully loaded” account quite inexpensive when the service officially launces..

All in all, GrandCentral is amazing, and amazingly useful — if you still don’t get how, check out this video from the NYT article.

In using it however, I’ve discovered a few things you may want to consider, before you jump in with both feet.

“One Phone Number for Life”

While this is a great goal, and I’m sure they’re quite sincere, let’s face it — “life” for web-based applications, telephony applications and startups doesn’t tend to be your “three score and ten”.

If changing email addresses is a pain in the butt (which is the reason you should own your own domain, but that’s another story), changing phone numbers is fifty times worse.

Changing your number to one issued by GrandCentral, with the prospect of having to change it again should they have problems (or you want to move to a competing service) is a big deal for most people.

So consider not changing it.

I’ve already got most of my callers used to the idea that by calling my main number (Vonage), it will ring me on my cell if I don’t pick it up at my desk, so I simply forwarded my Vonage number to my GrandCentral number, and attached my desk phone to a different VOIP line.

The net result is that I didn’t have to inform anyone of my new number, and my regular callers (in my contact list) never know the difference. If anyone not in my contact list calls me (or a regular caller calls from a new number), they get prompted to state their name.

This way, if GrandCentral has problems, or they price the service beyond what I’m willing to pay, or even if I should decide to go to a competing system in the future, I don’t have to tell anyone; I can just change it myself.

This does add a little to the cost (basically, Vonage’s cheapest grade of service), but since it wasn’t that long ago that I was routinely seeing $300 – $400 monthly phone bills, this is still way cheap for the convenience.

Phone Follies

As simple as GrandCentral’s inbound calling system is (press 1 to answer, 2 to send to voicemail, etc.), it’s been a challenge to my various phones.

My desk phone seems to send out a tone that’s just a little off of what GrandCentral will reliably detect; perhaps it’s too short, or just a bit off-frequency (it’s an old phone that I’m about to replace). In any event, I end up having to pound the button a few times before the call connects, which is a bit frustrating.

My T-Mobile dash has a different problem — if I answer the call while the keys are locked, I can’t press a number key without fumbling with the unlock. Since the unlock button is the same as the answer button, I can’t unlock it before answering. The net result is I’m now carrying it unlocked.

Both of these problems have caused me to drop calls — not GrandCentral’s fault, but a voice recognition system that let you pick a call handling option without having to hit a key would be a welcome feature.

Voicemail Planning

One of the great strengths of GrandCentral is their flexible voicemail system. This works well, provided your voicemail on your home phone, cell phone, voip line or whatever else you have doesn’t try grabbing the call first.

Turning off your voicemail, particularly on your cellphone, can require a lot of rooting around in settings and options.

Cute Tricks

Once you’ve got GrandCentral up and running, there are more than a few cute tricks you can add to the service, if you give it a little thought.

Free Cell Phone Service

You have a choice of whether GrandCentral feeds the original Caller ID to you, or whether the calls are ID’d as GrandCentral.

If you pick the latter option, you can incorporate it into “frequent number” lists — such as T-Mobile’s “Five Faves” feature, and avoid using up cellphone minutes on calls inbound from GrandCentral.

(Tip of the hat to Ken Camp for this one.)

Free Incoming Number for SoftPhones

GrandCentral supports routing calls to Gizmo Project’s free soft phone for Mac and Windows.

This allows you the option of answering your call on your computer, anywhere you have a broadband connection — without having to pay Gizmo’s $35 fee for having an inbound number.

Doubtless support for other softphones and sipphones will be coming soon.

(Tip of the hat to GigaOM)


GrandCentral is a great service, although it pays to plan just a little bit how you’re going to use it.

But while you’re planning, you might as well head over and sign up, although things may be just a bit slow today as scads of NYT readers hit their door.

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One Response to “GrandCentral hits the spotlight”

  1. GrandCentral, Faith and Web 2.0 | Metaphoric Labs on April 13th, 2008 12:48 pm

    […] been a big fan of GrandCentral since the beginning, and I still am. But I didn’t trust them back when they were a plucky startup, and that […]

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