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One of Google's new toys, GrandCentral, claims to be "The new way to use your phones."  Wait -- did they say phones, with an "s?"  What can one company do with more than one phone?  A lot, as it turns out.

Here's a typical story of a person who could be the average reader at InformIT.  Let's call him Larry.  Larry splits time working from home and at the office, and he travels on business.  He has a home phone, an office phone, a mobile phone, and a BlackBerry.  (Okay, so BlackBerry phones have gotten so good that many people use them as their primary mobile phones now, but stay with me...)

What number does Larry give out to friends, family, and co-workers to best reach him?  Let's say he's waiting for a call from a plumber.  He doesn't want to give him his cell number since he'll be sitting right at his desk most of the day.  But he doesn't want to miss the call when he runs out for lunch.  What to do?

Or consider this scenario: Larry gets off a plane and wants to check messages.  That means he has to dial his office voicemail, his mobile voicemail, and maybe his BlackBerry voicemail.  And if he wants to check his personal messages, add his home voicemail to the list.  That's quite a few calls to make while you're waiting at baggage claim, even if you have an iPhone and can visually check your voicemail on that account.

Enter GrandCentral. A GrandCentral account lets you choose a new phone number from anywhere in the country (much like signing up for a VoIP plan), but it's more than just another number to remember.  You see, Larry can enter all his other numbers into his GrandCentral account and give out a single phone number (his GrandCentral number) and have that number ring all of his phones at once.  The plumber can call Larry's GrandCentral number and catch Larry no matter where he is.  If he's on a plane and can't answer, GrandCentral offers a central voicemail box he can check when he lands.  Or he can log onto his GrandCentral account online and see a list of who called and what messages are waiting -- visual voicemail for non-iPhone users.  He can even listen to those messages at his computer and save his moblie minutes.

But there's a lot more to GrandCentral.  Like many people, Larry's address book contains numbers for friends, family, and business associates.  He can separate them all into unique categories and create different settings for each group.  For instance, when one of Larry's friends calls, he can have it set up to ring all of his phones.  But when one of Larry's co-workers calls, he can limit it to ring only his office phone and his mobile phone, thus saving Larry's wife the hassle of fielding business calls at their house.  (Speaking of calling at home, you can even set your home phone so it won't be called during normal business hours by anyone, which makes sense if you're always at your office then anyway.)

If Larry can't answer his phone, the call moves over to his GrandCentral voicemail.  He can set up custom greetings for each group -- and even set up custom greetings for each individual in his address book.  His co-workers can hear a formal greeting while his friends get to hear a clip from his favorite movie.  Speaking of customizing, each group (or individual) can get a different ring when they call, if you want to mess with that.

If Larry checks his caller ID and decides not to talk to that person, he can still listen in on the voicemail as it is being left to see if it's important.  If it's not he can choose to retrieve the full message later -- or delete it immediately.  If it is important, he can pick up the call as the message is being left, bringing back a function of answering machines that I personally miss in this age of voicemail.

If someone who is not in Larry's address book calls, they are asked to identify themselves before the call is connected.  Then, when Larry picks up the call GrandCentral tells him who is calling and gives him the option of answering or sending the call straight to voicemail.  If Larry gets too many calls from telephone solicitors, he can mark them as spam and send them to a special spam voicemail box that keeps clutter in his main voicemail box to a minimum.  Numbers that Larry identifies as spam can be filtered so they never even ring!

There are many other cool features the GrandCentral offers, but for the sake of space I'll limit this post to only one more.  GrandCentral calls it CallSwitch.  Let's say that Larry gets a call on his mobile phone as he's heading back to his office.  When he gets to his office he can seamlessly switch that call to his office phone without hanging up -- or the other person even knowing that he just switched phones.  It just takes one button press to do that, and it is a great way to save mobile minutes or battery power.  Or go the other way: if someone calls Larry as he's heading out, he can switch them from his office phone to his mobile phone and not miss a beat.

GrandCentral is currently in beta and is free for the time being.  Much like Gmail, you need to be invited by a current member to start an account.  It's well worth checking them out even if you don't know anyone with an account.  I'm not sure how much this service will cost when it makes it out of beta, but I suspect it will be worth it to many people who regularly juggle multiple phones.  I'm already loving it after only a few days.  Want to know more about it?  Call me.

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