Google has launched a new tool that lets its US-based Gmail users make free calls to one another via the web.
The new feature increases the search giant’s competition with Internet phone providers like Skype.
At an event in San Francisco, Google said the new service, which will roll out this week, is free for calls to the U.S. and Canada at least until the end of the year, though there are costs to make international calls to landlines and mobile phones.
Google said it hoped to later offer the service to international Gmail users and possibly to businesses.
Google said its PC-to-phone call rates will be cheaper than those of providers of similar services. Gmail calls to landlines in China, France, Spain, Mexico, the U.K. and more than two dozen other countries will cost two cents a minute.
Calls through Gmail to mobile phones internationally will be more expensive, with users paying 18 cents a minute for calls to the U.K. and six cents a minute to India, for example. Google said it hopes to generate enough revenue from the foreign calls to keep domestic and Canada calls free.
Skype charges users about 2.1 cents a minute to make calls to landline and mobile phones in the U.S. and dozens of other countries, according to its website. Skype also sells monthly subscriptions.
Gmail users who have a Google Voice account can also receive inbound calls in Gmail, the company said. Google Voice is a free service that gives callers a new phone number that can be used to ring different real-world phones they own and can send them an email transcript of voicemails they received, among other features.
For Google, the move helps drive users to Gmail as well as the potentially to add a feature to its software for businesses, called Google Apps. More than 200 million people currently use Gmail actively, said Todd Jackson, a Google product manager.
The move is Google’s latest foray into the telecommunications industry. Two years ago, Google launched a feature that allows Gmail users to do free video chats with other Gmail users.
The company has also launched its Android operating system, which powers dozens of mobile phones made by Motorola, HTC. and others. It also backed a Google-branded phone made by HTC Corp, which has been discontinued.
Skype, which is planning an initial public offering, also has a paid service offering low-cost calls to landlines or mobile phones, similar to Google’s new plan.
Skype, which generated revenue of more than $400 million for the first half of 2010, said only about eight million of its 560 million registered users paid for their service as of June 30.
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