One of the things I’m presently fascinated by is online presence and communications management; the interface of IM, VOIP, PSTN interfaces, online conferencing, etc. I’m impatient to enter the world where I can be engaged at any time with the people I want to be, without having to constantly fend off unwanted telemarketers and other voice spam.

GrandCentral seems to be an interesting tool for managing a piece of the puzzle; the regular telephone (PSTN) interface. GrandCentral provides a virtual phone number for free, in what appears to be any US (and maybe more, I don’t know) area code; and then helps manage calls to that number. You enter as many of your “real” phone numbers as you desire into the system for management purposes. Calling numbers can then be segregated into groups such as friends, family, and work, and via a web interface (hopefully an API coming as well), rules for each group can be set up. For example, calls from friends could ring your home and cell #s, calls from clients (work) could ring your work #, and all other calls could go straight to voice mail. Pretty nifty! Obviously, rules can be changed at will. Voice mail is also managed via the web, or you can login to the system from a phone and listen to them. Using the web interface provides the ability to download them, which is cool.

Pricing seems reasonable…after the beta (everything’s free right now), you’ll have 100 minutes of calls through the service a month for free; after that everything goes to voicemail. You can also buy blocks of minutes beyond the 100, or just go for the Premium account, which provides unlimited usage for $15/month.

So at a minimum, GrandCentral appears to be a free voicemail service that provides an easy path to upgrade to a paid service. I like that model (similar to Flickr); you get enough that it’s useful, but a taste of the extras.

With a few tweaks like a longer voicemail max message length (it’s presently 2 minutes, but I want to be able to leave myself podcasts! *grin*), and an option to forward to SIP numbers as well (which appears to be in the works), I could actually consider using this thing. I’ve already left myself a couple of voicemails, and the call quality appears to be pretty good. I’m keeping my eye on this. It’s an interesting alternative to both “regular” VOIP and IM/online voice tools, both of which provide some of this functionality, but not all. I love choices, don’t you?

UPDATE: I forgot to mention…in addition to the other cool stuff, the GrandCentral folks are using their powers for good as well. See the GrandCentral blog for details, but basically they have been giving out accounts to homeless people, battered women’s shelters, etc. in SF since April, and are working on expanding that program nationwide. It’s simple for them to do, helps test and tweak their system, and provides a HUGELY important service for people who don’t have any other way to give a potential employer, friend, etc. a point of contact without spending what little money they have on a pre-paid cellphone. It’s a great idea, and I applaud GrandCentral for doing it.

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