We've come a long way since this picture was taken at a Bell Systems Switchboad (Credit National Archives)
A pair of new Gmail features is making life easier and cheaper for me as I travel in Europe to attend the IFA Trade Show in Berlin and the Internet Governance Forum in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Free U.S. and Cheap International Calls
Google's new Gmail Phone service is letting me make and receive calls from the same number that people call to reach me at home. And unlike international cell phone roaming, it doesn't cost anything between here and the U.S. And the e-mail service's new Priority Inbox feature makes it easier to find important messages amid the many not-so-important messages that clog my inbox.
To use the free phone service you need a free Gmail account, but you don't necessarily have to actually use the e-mail service. If you don't have a Gmail account, you can set one up at Gmail.com.
Once logged into Gmail, look for the words "call phone" in the chat section in the left-most column. When you first click on it, you'll have to accept the terms of service and you may be prompted to install software. Once done, you'll get an on-screen dial pad that you can use to call almost any phone in the world.
Through at least the end of this year, all calls in the United States and Canada are free. International calls start at two cents a minute for landlines in many countries, including most of Europe and China. Calls to cellphones outside of North America are usually more expensive because the caller pays for air time in most countries.
If you have a Google Voice number, you can receive calls as well. Google Voice is a service that lets you make cheap international calls from cell phones in the U.S. and also lets you give out one number to reach up to five phones and your PC.
The sound quality on both ends of the call depends on your Internet connection, but my hotel's Wi-Fi is more than adequate for excellent call quality. Most calls sound as good or better than local calls within the U.S.
The other big Gmail announcement is Priority Inbox, a new way to organize your inbox. Gmail has had good spam filters but many people still have cluttered inboxes thanks to "Bacn" or "Bologna," routine messages that aren't spam.
If you accept Gmail's offer to let you try out Priority Inbox feature, Google sorts your mail into three categories. At the top of your inbox are unread messages that Google thinks are "important." Just below that are messages from people you've flagged as important contacts. "Everything else" is below that. Gmail guesses who to include in the "important" category based on people you e-mail regularly, but you can easily add or remove people.
The prioritization isn't perfect; it's still important to look at the "everything else" messages because sometimes you get important mail from people who you might not correspond with often.
Still, it's nice to have a flag for messages from close friends, your spouse or partner or co-workers -- and it's really a good idea to make sure you don't miss e-mails from your boss and clients.