Do You Really Need Three Phone Numbers?

GrandCentral, a phone service that wants to simplify your life.

We may live in an era of unprecedented change for telephones, but one thing has barely evolved in the last 125 years: the phone number. Between home, work, and cell, most of us have at least three of them to wrangle. When you think about it, the idea that both landline and wireless numbers must remain tied to specific equipment and geographical regions is pretty archaic. It’s as if you needed separate e-mail addresses for every computer that you used—and had to change your e-mail address if you moved cross-country.

Enter GrandCentral, a service that tries to bring the phone number into the modern era. For starters, it gives you a number that isn’t permanently associated with any line or handset in particular. Actually, GrandCentral rings all your phones at once, after you’ve registered your existing numbers on the company’s Web site. And if you move, all your friends can keep calling your GrandCentral number rather than having to learn a new one. You simply have to register your new lines and delete the old ones.

In other words, as long as you’re near any of your phones, you’ll get every call that anyone makes to your GrandCentral number. Or not—many of the service’s seemingly bottomless bag of tricks are designed to help you avoid talking to people. It screens calls with ruthless efficiency, forcing anyone whom it can’t identify (through caller ID and your address book, which it can import from Microsoft Outlook or Gmail) to say who they are. It then tells you who’s calling so you can decide if you want to answer. GrandCentral also blocks calls from known phone spammers; it can even play an uncannily realistic “you have reached a number that has been disconnected” recording for telemarketers or folks you just plain don’t like.

Wait, there’s more: It also lets you handle voicemail on the Web (including via your phone’s browser). You can voyeuristically listen in on callers as they record messages, then interrupt to take the call if you so choose. One keypad press lets you record a call, or transfer it on the fly from one of your phones to another. Did I mention that you can replace the ringing noise that callers hear while they’re waiting for you to pick up with any MP3 you want … or that you can specify different MP3s (as well as custom voicemail greetings) for specific people?

On paper, this all sounds kind of amazing—and all the more so given that it carries no cost. During its beta period, GrandCentral is free; when the final version comes along at some unspecified point in the coming months, there will be both a free edition and a for-pay one with more features and customization options. Not one to pass up a can’t-miss opportunity, I signed up for a number in my area code—266 area codes covering 47 states are now available, with more on the way—and began to spread the word.

From the start, I discovered that the real-world version of GrandCentral isn’t always as snazzy as the theoretical version. For one thing, there’s the way the service bills itself as “One Number … for Life.” I was instinctively skeptical about the “for life” part, given that I’ve already outlived multiple services that were vaguely akin to GrandCentral. But even the “one number” part is subject to debate. What you’re really getting is half a phone number, since your GrandCentral digits are for incoming calls only. If you place a call from any of your phones to a cell phone, your phone’s actual number—not your GrandCentral one—will show up, meaning that people who call you back from the log will bypass GrandCentral entirely. And cool features like the ability to record a conversation work only when someone’s phoned you. During one call, I maniacally pounded on my phone’s star button, believing it would let me transfer a call—which it didn’t, since I was the one who’d made the call in the first place.

Convincing my cohorts to use my new GrandCentral number also proved surprisingly tricky. One buddy developed an irritating habit of trying it first and then, if I didn’t pick up, proceeding to call each of my other numbers in succession until I did. It dawned on me that it’s tough to train people to use a new phone number when a) the old numbers still work, and b) the new one mostly benefits you, not them.

“One Number … for Life” isn’t the only claim I’d quibble with. The most prominent promise on the service’s home page is that you’ll “Never Miss a Call You Want to Take.” The very first call to my virgin GrandCentral number came from a friend confirming dinner plans. I was in a meeting when my cell phone rang; I sprang up, bolted for the door, and answered the line. Which promptly went dead. I’d forgotten that a department assistant answers my office line (which GrandCentral had simultaneously rung) when I don’t. She had picked up the call back at her desk more swiftly than I had. Lesson learned: If there’s any chance that someone other than you—be it a colleague or your offspring—might answer one of your phones, think twice before programming it into GrandCentral.

When the never-miss-a-call feature works, it’s not always a good thing. After all, only the most slavish worker bee is willing to let absolutely any business acquaintance reach them at any hour of the day on any phone. GrandCentral does let you divvy your contact list into subgroups with different rules. For instance, you could tell it to ring all your phones if a family member’s on the line, but only your office number if it’s a co-worker. That helps, if you take the time to categorize everyone appropriately. But I found myself longing for time-based rules so that, say, business callers would reach my cell from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and get bounced to voicemail otherwise. You can tell GrandCentral not to ring your home number during work hours; oddly, you can’t do the reverse, to stop corporate matters from intruding into your life once you’ve checked out for the day.

One thing I do like unreservedly is the service’s approach to voicemail. When the iPhone shows up in late June, some hard-core phone freaks will undoubtedly plunk down $500 for its point-and-click “visual voicemail” feature alone. GrandCentral offers something roughly comparable right now for any phone with an audio player. You can immediately jump to any of your messages and don’t have to remember whether pressing #3 will save a message to the archive or delete it forever. And the company says it’ll keep all your mail indefinitely—a blessed change from Cingular, which won’t even let me listen to new messages until I’ve weeded out ones that are just a few weeks old.

GrandCentral doesn’t have to be perfect to be worthwhile, and the 9,076 testimonials posted on its site as I write this include plenty of mash notes from customers who seem to love it unreservedly. But I’m still waiting for someone to reinvent the phone number as something that feels like a technological match for the powerful device that my phone has become. Or, better yet, to eradicate the whole antiquated practice of representing human beings with 10 hard-to-remember digits. Hey, I can dream.