Google brings free US calls to Gmail

gmail callsGoogle announced today that it will allow users to make phone calls directly from Gmail — because, apparently, I don’t spend enough time in Gmail already.

Cnet first broke the news yesterday that Google was working on this feature. It was demonstrated this morning at a press event in Google’s San Francisco office. The interface seems pretty straightforward. After you’ve bought credits to pay for calls, you just hit the “call phone” button and Gmail places the call. Calls to numbers in the United States and Canada are free, and Google says international rates should be very low, too — to many countries it only costs 2 cents per minute.

This feature becomes even more useful if you have an account with the Google Voice phone service. Then when you make a call from Gmail, the recipient sees that it’s coming from your Google Voice number. You can also answer calls to your Google Voice account in Gmail.

Google is rolling this out to Gmail users in the US starting today. For now, it doesn’t work on the mobile phone version of Gmail or for businesses that use Gmail through the Google Apps program. (Though it sounds like this is something that will be added to Apps in some form in the future.)

As for how Google will make money, spokesmen said the revenue model revolves on international calling right now — that’s how they’re subsidizing calls to the US and Canada. (Google has only committed to keep those calls free until the end of the year, but it also says there are no plans to increase the rates.) Plus, this is a way to encourage people to sign up for Google Voice, which includes pay features.

Google declined to say how many people are currently using Google Voice (which opened to the public in June). Spokesmen did say there are hundreds of millions of active users in Gmail, and a “significant percentage” of them use the existing Gmail-to-Gmail video chatting service.

You can read more details on the Google blog.