Google is gearing up to take on Skype for free internet phone and video calls, but UK users may have a long wait for the facility.
Google is also presently unable to match the protection Skype gives to calls.
In a blog post, Google software engineer Robin Schriebman said US Gmail users would be able to click on a "call phone" icon in their inboxes to make free voice and video calls to friends in the US and Canada. Rates to offshore destinations were as low as two cents a minute.
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Non-US Gmail users would have access to the service later, Schriebman said.
The move pitches Google, which has some 200 million customers, against market leader Skype, which claims 560 million accounts. According to market analyst Telegeography, Skype became the world's biggest international communications carrier in terms of minutes served in 2008.
Some analysts have suggested Google is trying to spoil Skype's IPO, which is aimed at raising $100m by the end of the year.
Emma Leathley, technology analyst at Clearwater Corporate Finance, said Google's recent acquisitions in the voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) market meant the announcement was expected. "But the timing may be a bit of spanner in the works for Skype's IPO," she said.
Leathley said Google might struggle to get Skype users to switch. "Skype is well-entrenched. People Skype just as people Google, and everyone knows what each means.
"Where Skype could win is that its encryption protocol has proved rock-solid, so your messages are protected. With Google you will never know," she said.
A Google spokesman said calls from Gmail were currently unprotected, but the company is working on the issue. She added there was no release date or plan to launch the service in the UK, but Google was working to localise the products.
Computer Weekly says…
Many telcos, especially mobile operators, throttle or ban Skype traffic. They want to force customers to make calls on normal phones. Skype has been an active campaigner for net neutrality - the idea that all bits are equal on the net.
Google and Verizon recently proposed a number of policies on net neutrality. These would preserve net neutrality for wired networks, but allow traffic discrimination by the content's latency requirements, opening the way for carriers to charge more for phone and video traffic.
Google also plans to spend $1bn building its own broadband networks in US cities. it would be ironic if most of that traffic was free VoIP calls.
If Google wants to get serious about competing with telcos, including Skype, it might need to come up with a more convincing strategy that throwing stuff at the wall to see if anything sticks.