Those of you who are avid Google Voice users, and who also took the plunge and enabled Hangouts in Gmail, probably noticed the absence of Gmail calling. One of the most under-advertised but useful features of Gmail that I can think of, this feature allowed you to make and receive calls using your Google Voice number, and the functionality all but broke completely for those who upgraded from the old Gmail Chat.
Luckily, Google announced yesterday that phone calls are returning to Gmail – along with official support in Google Hangouts on Google+ and in the Chrome extension. Previously, it was possible to make and receive calls if you used the Hangouts Chrome extension, but the process was very buggy: for example, sometimes it wasn’t possible to answer incoming calls. To dial out, you needed to start a new video Hangout and subsequently add phone numbers that way. Perhaps most annoyingly, phone calls weren’t supported at all in the web versions of Hangouts in Gmail or Google+ – you absolutely needed the Chrome extension. (I explained all of my complaints about Hangouts shortly after its release in May.)
Luckily, all of this will change over the next few days for most users, as phone calls will officially be supported across all of the different methods to access Hangouts on desktop computers. According to Google, going forward it will be easier than ever to add multiple phone numbers and video participants to the same call, and you can even play sound effects like applause or laughter with the Google Effects app. (Somehow, I see the number of prank calls made through Google Hangout going up.)
Over the next few days, a new phone icon will appear in your Gmail, and a new “Call a phone” menu item will show up in Google+ and the Chrome extension. As an added bonus, calling to US and Canadian numbers will be free even when initiating the call from outside the US. Thanks, Google![Google]