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Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

The Web 2.0 Address Book May Have Arrived

grandcentral.pngDavid Pogue recently sent out the following email message to all his contacts:

"David Pogue has a new, universal phone number: [number omitted] This number rings all my phones at once: home phone, work phone, cellphone, hotel room, wherever I happen to be. The old, individual numbers still work, but you'll greatly improve your odds of reaching me if you use this new number. I know it's a hassle to update your records, but this is a "lifetime" number that shouldn't change again.

In a private note to me, he wrote: "I'm using, of course, GrandCentral, which was the topic of my column today. It's pretty awesome--I'd think you might be a prime candidate, too!"

In that New York Times column, he gives more details:

[GrandCentral's] motto, "One number for life," pretty much says it all. At, you choose a new, single, unified phone number (more on this in a moment). You hand it out to everyone you know, instructing them to delete all your old numbers from their Rolodexes.

From now on, whenever somebody dials your new uninumber, all of your phones ring simultaneously, like something out of "The Lawnmower Man."

No longer will anyone have to track you down by dialing each of your numbers in turn. No longer does it matter if you're home, at work or on the road. Your new GrandCentral phone number will find you.

David runs through some of the other features as well:

  • "You can listen to a message someone is leaving, just as you can on a home answering machine."
  • "You can actually record a different voice mail greeting for each person in your address book."
  • "You can pick up on a different phone in midconversation, unbeknownst to the person on the other end."
  • "GrandCentral maintains a database of telemarketer numbers that is constantly updated by reports from its own subscribers. Your phones don't even ring when a telemarketer in that database tries to reach you."
  • "You can install a "call me" button on your Web site -- a great, free way to field calls ... without actually posting your phone number."

Now, many hackers have worked this kind of behavior out for themselves, perhaps using their asterisk server. (Feel free to post your favorite hacks in the comments!) But this is a mainstream consumer service, and as David wrote in his Times column, "GrandCentral has rewritten the rules in the game of telephone."

I haven't played with GrandCentral much yet, but it appears to be a textbook Web 2.0 application, building a network-effects business that gets better the more people use it. It's "software above the level of a single device." Like iTunes, it provides an integrated application that involves a handheld device, a PC control station (albeit in this case a flash application in a web browser rather than a standalone app), and a server back-end.

Perhaps most importantly, if this service takes off, it's almost a perfect "Data is the Intel Inside" play, far greater than any email address-book based attempt like Plaxo. It will be the first service outside the phone companies themselves that could build that next generation Web 2.0 address book I've been writing about. (See also.)

You can see how cleverly they've architected the service to gather additional information from public sources, and then get their customers to enhance them, in the following feature (as well as in their telemarketer blocking, above):

Every GrandCentral caller is announced by name when you answer the phone. ("Call from Ethel Murgatroid.")

How does it know the name? Sometimes Caller ID supplies it. GrandCentral also knows every name in your online address book, which can import your contacts from Yahoo, Gmail or your e-mail program.

Callers not in these categories are asked to state their names the first time they call. On subsequent calls, GrandCentral recognizes them.

In short, I expect GrandCentral to become one of the premier Web 2.0 and social networking platforms overnight, and it's squarely aimed at the heart of the communications device used by more people than any PC application will ever touch.

(Note: I was on the board of the company formerly known as Grand Central, which is connected to this one via its name and its primary investor, Halsey Minor, but I have no connection to the current company.)

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Comments: 32

Tomas   [03.18.07 12:50 PM]

I don't get it... Why do I need this service? Maybe a few execs out there with two cell phones and a office number. But even those guys don't want people to reach them all the time. Most of them have at least one assistant fielding calls...

What I would like is a service that delivers a message to my preferred medium; phone, email, im, or other. If someone calls my cellphone but I have set this application to "email" mode, that phone call will be converted into an mp3 and delivered in my gmail account. Conversely, if I'm in "cell phone" mode that email will be converted in to a voice message delivered to my phone.

Maybe this is where these guys are heading, but at the current state I don't see anything useful about this application.

Ben Bangert   [03.18.07 01:35 PM]

I'm really not seeing the Web 2.0 connection. Plaxo doesn't require me to start giving out new phone numbers to instantly get the benefit of others using the service... wheras GrandCentral is already mostly useless for me. Where are the net work effects in using GrandCentral? Where does GrandCentral all of a sudden become better because people are using it?

GrandCentral only gets better when you add your address book to it, the actual usage of the phone service doesn't make other people's usage of it better which I'd consider a primary factor for it to qualify for the network effect litmus test.

I (along with many nowadays) already have a single phone number, its my cell phone. I can deny a call when I see it coming in and send it to voice mail, or accept (just a button push). I already see their names since my phone has sync'd with my Address Book via BlueTooth.

Cell phones also let you associate unique ring tones and pictures to pop up when individuals call. GrandCentral is going to have a tough time matching that since all your calls are going to appear to be coming from GrandCentral, thus you always have to pick-up and hear them tell you who it is instead of seeing a unique picture or hearing a unique ring-tone upon receiving the call. I've found it incredibly handy on many occasions to be able to see who's calling while my phone is in silent mode so I can determine if I need to step outside to take the call.

The only feature I think would be handy is being able to listen in while the caller leaves a message.... but that isn't worth the hassle of telling everyone to call me at a different number. I seriously doubt the rest of the younger generation that has a single number for life (their cell number, which is now portable) will see the need to give out another number for a single additional feature. It's only a matter of time before cell carriers add this feature.

I'm also a bit wary of this one number for life thing... how do we know its not going to be another company that fails to have a wide enough appeal and bites it in a year?

Andy Wong   [03.18.07 02:26 PM]

This is "Call Divert" going a bit further. Rather than setting one phone to divert to another phone, now we have GrandCentral as a great nanny to centralize the "Call Divert" service from one unique number to all other numbers. That's, the old service (by a telecom operator) is one to one divert, the new one is one to many divert.

Great idea.

However, people keep multiple phones for different reasons, for example, to keep different life/social circles. DAVID POGUE quoted, "You may also feel that the last thing your life needs is more phone calls reaching you successfully", I do believe there are many people like this service, since they fall into the scenarios that GrandCentral service was designed for.

Such convenience comes with a cost: losing flexibility, and confusion.

With traditional call divert service, while you can set one to one divert, you can also set multiple phone be diverted to one phone, that is, many to one.

Having multiple phone ringing at the same time might cause confusion. How do you know the other phones ring at the same time are from the same caller or not? If you happen to be with these phone in the same room, you need to check them one by one. And can you ensure that someone else in your office or at home won't pick up the phone before you do?

I am sure those real targeted users of GrandCentral might not feel any inconvenience or confusion. But if you really get excited by this service and ready to subscribe, just think twice about what impacts/values could be?

I am with Tomas. You might already be aware, message forwarding between phone, sms, Email and IM have been there for years. In the past, you needed to manage these services with some trouble settings but also some flexibility. With this great nanny, you might have less trouble of settings, but surely lost some flexibility.

After all, I think GrandCentral had done a great job at exploring the ways of service people at a Web 2.0 thinking.

Ben Bangert   [03.18.07 02:36 PM]

Thought I'd ammend my prior post. I checked into it some more, and GrandCentral will spoof the Caller ID to make it appear the phone call is coming from the person. Thus anything set to activate for a number will still show up properly.

On a side-note, the caller recording thing apparently violates California recording law as it doesn't indicate that the call is being recorded to all parties. Though apparently since this is difficult to enforce, the FCC merely suggests that the consumer beware.

When GrandCentral gets a sync utility like Plaxo's, I think that could make it a rather great option, especially if I could transfer my cell phone number to them so I don't have to give out another phone number.

Andy Wong   [03.18.07 02:40 PM]

Just read Ben Bangert's comment. I think GrandCentral generally targets businessmen/businesswomen with many phone numbers. The greatest concern of all is that, having a centralized virtual phone number in use will make the structure of communication of yours a bit more fragile. For example, if the service of GrandCentral is down for some minutes, my voice channels of communication will fail as well. This prospect won't make people feel easy.

Unless GrandCentral can come up with some backup soltuions, people will just hesitate.

Sam   [03.18.07 03:04 PM]

Without a service like Simulscribe or Spinvox I wouldn't bother. There is no better way to get a voicemail than as a text email in my inbox. (I do not have any monetary interest in either company)

Tom McDonald   [03.18.07 03:39 PM]

As a user of GC since Sept. 2006 I can say that I agree with Tim's observations. Having a landline and a cell phone alone is enough, though I also use it for business purposes. I just love it!

Disclaimer: We did some demo work for GC a while back in the form of screencasts but I'd have been using them regardless because of the current and potential functionality.

Tim O'Reilly   [03.18.07 08:18 PM]

Ben -- first off -- I know you have more than one number, because you have an extension on your desk at the office. I know that number, but not your cell number. Of course, with only one other number, and the attitude that you have, that your cell number is your "real" phone number, it's simple enough just to have all calls forwarded there.

I on the other hand have an office extension, an office extension at home, a home phone, and a cell phone. (And that's not to include the two other office extensions that ring my assistant Patrick, and the one in the conference room where I do a lot of calls.) What's more, I get very crappy cell reception at home, so I never use it there. And when Patrick's not around, GC provides a very useful tool for managing that nest of phones.

But your comment does give me pause -- in your generation, a phone is much more associated with a person than with a location, so maybe this mapping of locations to a single personal number is just a temporary artifact, for those of us who haven't taken the plunge to a one-number life.

As to the textbook web 2.0 application, consider this: each phone carrier has a complete call history for each of its customers. They know who you call, and who calls you. They could build interesting applications based on this knowledge, but to date, they haven't shown much imagination.

In order to deliver their service, GC has now abstracted away from the phone company all this data. And in fact, over time, they should build up a phone directory and call history that is a superset of the knowledge of any of the individual carriers. And unlike the phone carriers, I imagine that they'll be quick to build on that database, which is constantly growing.

You're right that the application doesn't necessarily get better for the user the more people are connected -- I may be getting ahead of myself there -- but the database definitely does. When you add in the idea of people being incentivized to upload their address books for additional control over calling...and you realize that GC will be maintaining all that data for its realize just how large and powerful a base that data will provide.

Obviously, there are lots of privacy implications, but as long as GC provides its services only to the subscriber, they may well get over the potential trust barrier.

Nathan   [03.18.07 08:20 PM]

GrandCentral seems to quite promising as a convienent method of doing what is already possible. The important aspect which GrandCentral brings is the ease of use which will allow for a wider spread adoption of greater communication techniques, particularly when they develop the capacity to forward calls to international numbers, this allows you to be reachable by friends, family and co-workers while you are off on the that business trip to Germany, through the German pay as you go cellphone that you pick up in the airport kiosk when you land. One little adjustment on the webpage at GrandCentral and you haven't lost anything.

Tim O'Reilly   [03.18.07 08:25 PM]

Ben -- the other way that this does get better the more people use it is the telemarketer blocking feature. I bet that if the service gets traction, there will be lots more services like that to follow -- services that are built by user contribution.

Tim Elfelt   [03.18.07 09:29 PM]

I signed up for this 2 or 3 days ago and I love it! I am in the process of adding all of my contacts, but one of my favorite features is that (like Jajah) I can have it call me and initiate the call to the other person, which means it is free for me (my cell has free incoming calls

Another great featureset is the call record and send to voicemail options etc

Mark Henderson   [03.18.07 11:59 PM]

I've been using this service for a while and love it. The one thing keeping it from being a truly universal number is its inability to receive text messages (SMS). This means I still need to give friends my cell number.

Ben Bangert   [03.19.07 12:01 AM]

A few other notes from digging through the GrandCentral service. The ToS do indicate that the user should be careful of the legal implications of using the recording capability. Personally I think they should disable it as it makes it way to easy to accidentally violate a state law somewhere (California ruled that the caller in another state is liable for informing you the call is recorded merely by calling you.) Or perhaps they can quickly recite something before you push 4 (to record the call) to indicate you must notify the caller that you're recording the call should they (or you) be in the following states....

Tim, I honestly have no idea what my office extension is. I generally figure if someone needs to get ahold of me, they'll have my cell number. In a way, knowing my 'real' number from my temporary/office numbers is a screening process of its own. As for tele-marketers, I have yet to receive a telemarketing call since putting my number on the Do-Not-Call list.... if only something worked so well for e-mail. :)

As Andy mentioned, I wouldn't want my office extension ringing for every personal call I take on my cell phone. I've seen other call divert systems that let you specify times of the day that a number should be forwarded elsewhere, which I'm sure would be trivial for GrandCentral to implement (*hint hint*). As I have no reason my office extension should ring during the hours when I'm most likely not at work.

I think Tim Elfelt hit a good feature on the head, and knowing how cell companies hate to miss out on a nickel and dime I wonder how long till they put GrandCentral in a billing category of its own. Right now though, as I really only use my cell number I just can't see a reason to tell everyone I know to use some other number. This number has always gone straight to me for the past 6 years and seems more solid than a rather new-ish company that is still relying on venture funding (or are they profitable now?).

Gary Lang   [03.19.07 01:03 AM]

I've been using a service that does exactly this since 1999, called "Webley", though lately it is known as "Communikate". I've had the same 877 number since then, and countless different cell numbers and two office numbers as well.

I have a car phone, a cell phone, an office number and a home number. All of these numbers ring at once. So what's new?

Prior to this, I used a system that I managed the creation of at General Magic. Same idea, though we didn't ring all phones at once, we rang them in sequence.

As with Portico, Webley allows me to screen my calls, the number is also my FAX number, and all voice mails get forwarded to my GMail account, allowing me to listen to them from India or Dubai free of charge.

None of these services has been a financial home run. Portico is as dead as General Magic. Webley was in financial trouble, AOL invested, but they seem to have lasted since all that started. I expected the service to go away years ago, but it never did and I love it.

Tijs   [03.19.07 05:33 AM]

I can reach 99% percent of the people i know on one number; their cell phone number.

Andy Wong   [03.19.07 05:43 AM]

Interesting about Gary Lang's comment. I searched web, found is a junk site, and is blank. And there was a job adv. dating back 2004:
Webley Systems is a leading applications service provider that vastly improves how people communicate. It offers unified communications,
virtual PBX, audio conferencing and fax messaging services to a diverse range of enterprises. Its CommuniKate™ product suite helps people communicate efficiently with anyone, anywhere and in any mode.
Webley's services are IP-based and use the world's
recognition technology.

Does this service provider for Mr Lang still exist? Or is there a story about it?

Anna Bretten   [03.19.07 06:07 AM]

I have two cellphones, a landline at work, and one at home. This service sounds very useful, as then I don't have to carry around two cellphones, and my callers don't get through to my landline and then have to redial my cell number.

Yes, I could indeed set things up so that, as I leave my office, I set a forward on my landline. But I am chronically disorganised, and have long since accepted that, for me, technology is necessary to help me remember things that for other people are easy- or, better still, to make it unnecessary for me to remember to do things!

Still, as a minor compensation, being absent-minded gave me a huge incentive to get into IT as early as possible :)

PaulSweeney   [03.19.07 06:40 AM]

This is a really good conversation about the true value of services. I can't sign up for GCS because I am based in Europe, so I can't speak to the effectiveness of the service. It would seem a matter of logical progression, that once they own your front door, they will continue to put new services behind it. The real telling point will be the creativity of the social aspects of the platform.

Cecilia Abadie   [03.19.07 07:30 AM]

I'm wondering if a similar thing could be done for emails.
I do have like 8 emails accounts I check regularly and couple of them are totally infected by spam. It should be pretty simple to forward all your accounts to one email address that filters spam from all community reported spammers.

But, maybe, there's place for a solution similar to GC that simplifies all the process of having a new unique life email centrally managed.

Tim Elfelt   [03.19.07 07:51 AM]

@ Cecilia
I would also like to use something like that, as long as it could be sorted by which address it came from etc...

As for the recording, I believe that in most states you must notify the other party of your recording for it to be legal

Tim O'Reilly   [03.19.07 08:03 AM]

It's pretty clear that there are two target audiences here (perhaps separated by a generational gulf, but potentially also by where they sit in organizations). One has completely adopted the cell phone as its only phone; the other has multiple phones. If you're in the first group, you're right: this service has no purpose for you.

One small note: I've noticed a number of my younger cell-only friends get home phones when they settle down and start a family. Why? Because sometimes, you don't want to reach the person, you do want to reach the place, and anyone who might be there.

And for the cell generation, I can imagine a CG application (or hack) for couples or friend groups: give out a single number that rings all of you at once. It's not used often, but just when you want an instant group conference call or confab.

In fact, that hack might well be a killer app for GC.

Gordon Mohr   [03.19.07 09:52 AM]

This GC service also brings to mind the 'Wildfire' voice-controlled phone-management service of the late 90s/early 00s -- not exactly the same, but some similar advanced dynamic call filtering/routing seemed one of its main values. (I didn't use it, but recall reading glowing reviews at the time.)

This article's very cursory analysis suggests Wildfire faded due to its usefulness being diluted by the rise of cellphones, email, etc. I would have thought more modes of communication would make Wildfire's slick availability management even more valuable -- so maybe it was just a matter of the product not evolving with the times, and fumbling post-acquisition (by Orange).

Paul   [03.19.07 02:43 PM]

I agree that in theory this is a wonderful application/service. The idea of having 1 contact number that is manageable for everyone is excellent, but it really is a more home & office workers dream than for your average joe

I have a work phone number but I am no way 'important' enough to be required to be contacted once I get out of the office. Of course some people have my work-number incase something happens/just because ocassionally personal calls at work happen. I have a mobile phone number and that is given to my friends and immediate family, I have a house-phone that is only given to a small set of people.

If you could set parameters for individuals and manage them so that specific users only ring on specified lines etc. that would be excellent. Additionally if you could 'sign in' to which location you are it could then ring the 'appropriate' phone.

I suspect people who dislike the privacy loss from mobile phones will dislike this more, but I do think this could have a huge beneficial impact for freelance/home-working/self employed people. I see a smaller, but potentially useful, benefit for your average user.

Crrently the only reason I maintain a home phone (and the only reason 95% of my friends have one) is purely for internet access which is still prohibitedly expensive over mobile phones.

One thing this system could perhaps bring about is roaming-internet. If you have one phone that follows you about you could potentially (in the future) have one phone number to access the net. This could be using your house-line (and internet router) at home where prices are cheap, but then if you leave the 'router zone' it will dial in directly from the laptop and continue seamlessly. This will mean that home-based computers and laptops can connect under the same account as if on a network even though they are connect via seperate 'modems'.

Anand Muthu   [03.20.07 08:26 AM]

Cool Stuff :-)
Will buy a *New E62* now and would get a start Experimenting !

Anonymous   [03.20.07 05:30 PM]

Wow. The world is closing in. The feeling I get reading the comments here and understanding GC a bit better is of a narrowing arteries: all phones converging into one!
It is more philosophical than technical from where I "preach." I have three main phones: cell (somewhat personal) work (I am a teacher so it is mostly for parents, students and colleagues) and home phone (where privacy is virtue). Taking the summary of my phone-per-use reality: why would I want to bundle them up as one? And isn't it precisely why we call them "work" or "cell" or "home" in the first place, instead of one number as in "virtual-me!"?

David Williams   [03.20.07 11:53 PM]

There were several concerns voiced here about getting and handing out a new number. Ben mentioned this subtly and it should not be overlooked -- if GC is allowed to take over existing numbers via LNP, then you wouldn't have to give up your number.

This will strike fear into the hearts of wireless carriers. If you abstract them away with a service like this, you may be more willing to switch underlying carriers because there is less friction. Another issue: you are charged today for forwarding (call divert) or checking your voicemail from a landline phone (reduces MOU on wireless plan). If you use GC and their forwarding and voicemail, you can take calls and access voicemail anywhere, significantly reducing your mobile plan usage. Great for GC, bad for wireless carriers.

Great to see that a few people still remember Portico, Webley, and Wildfire. Like so many "Web 2.0" services, this has been done before but either the technology wasn't ready, the market wasn't ready, or no one hit on the right business model. Fingers crossed this time!

Richard Cuff   [03.21.07 02:49 PM]

This is attractive to me for both personal and business use. I can give out one number and not stew over where I might be. I have crappy cell reception at home, so I would not want client calls to my cell phone there. Also, why should I pay for cell minutes (I'm in the USA) if I am at a landline with free incoming minutes?

Two features I'd like to add: 1) outbound Caller ID spoofing so people who get calls from me see my GrandCentral number, not my cell/home/work/VoIP number; 2) user-configurable delay time between how long my phones ring until VM picks up. Yes, there's a do-not-disturb option, but I'd like something in between.

Larisa   [03.22.07 03:54 PM]

I, like Cecilia, have many email accounts. I run them all through a copy of MS Outlook that sits on an Exchange server. I then sort my mail by account using "rules" and folders. By using Exchange I get the benefits of spam filtering on the spammish accounts as well as on the road access through OWA (no snarking please I know it sucks.)

I find the idea of many-into-one (email accounts into exchange server/mail reader) much more useful than the idea of one-into-many (phone number into ringing phones.)

Though I don't think that I'd want a many-into-one service for my phone. One of the reasons I guard my cell phone number so closely is that I can't talk on the phone and drive at the same time. I have to pull over whenever my phone rings. It never makes me happy if I have to pull off the freeway at rush hour just to retrieve a voicemail about my dental appointment tomorrow. ;-)


Lal   [03.25.07 01:04 PM]

Like many have said before "most" of what GC is doing has been done b4. Maybe not in a concise manner and being Web 2.0 its more 'friendly'.

Its not a ubiquitous service and only works 4 those that have the need (whats new there -eh!)

2 me I'd call it an intelligent PBX - push everything to the 'cloud' and go virtual - its the lastest buzzword anyway so jump on it.

As it matures it c it adding more features (like outgoing etc..) but a possible hookup with iotum might be interesting


Max Bruno   [04.03.07 11:29 PM]

I had a Wildfire number for a few years in the late 90s and was dismayed when my local franchisee went belly-up. I have had a Webley/Communikate account ever since, and love it. Seems that Communikate does just about everything that GC does, if not more. My clients and other callers are always impressed by the service, but it seems that Communikate has no interest in signing up new customers; as others have noted, the company has shuttered its storefront sites. When prospective subscribers enquire about the service, I have nowhere to send them! Miraculously, my service has continued to work with unfailing reliability through it all. Sure hope they manage to stay afloat.

Mark McAllister   [10.18.07 04:06 PM]

I've had my GrandCentral # for over a year now and have just recently started using it for my new business contact #. I had suggested some time back that they add the ability to add SIP uri's for SIP phones because it would keep costs down for the outgoing calls and I could get it on my laptop. I see that they have at least added Gizmo, which is a step in the right direction. Now that they are part of Google, I think the synergies can come to play with integration into iGoogle homepage--you should be able to access your voicemails and settings from there. LuvIT

Jen   [11.25.07 10:27 AM]

I see the potential for this being a really useful tool, but what if not enough people think so, and GrandCentral vanishes? Then you are back in the same situation, having to tell everyone a new number again. I haven't heard of this service anywhere else yet, so it can't be that popular. I'll wait until I feel more convinced that GrandCentral will actually be around in a couple of years!

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