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      VALLEY TECH TALK Using Gmail to Make Phone Calls

      Google recently released an update that allows users to make and receive phone calls while logged into their Gmail account.

      The update, while accessed within Gmail, actually connects two other services with similar function, Google Talk and Google Voice.

      Google Talk is an instant messaging service that allows users to call and video conference with each other, besides just chat. Prior to the update, both parties had to be using Google Talk to be able to make the free calls.

      Google Voice is a service that theoretically gives you a free phone number for life.

      That phone number can forward to other phones or function as a voice mailbox. One fun feature is that Google Voice transcribes your voice messages and forwards the text to you.

      As soon as Voice became available to everybody, users started asking for a way to combine it with Talk so that they could call people on their phones via their chat window. Today, Google came through.

      The new update takes aim directly at another popular VOIP service, Skype, which has long provided chat, voice, video calling, and phone calling. In addition, Google's international calling rates are lower than Skype's.

      This is another step towards Google Me, a much rumored effort by the search giant to build a social network that will rival Facebook.

      By the looks of it, Gmail may be the communications center of whatever Google cooks up.

      The new development may not change the face of communications just yet. Facebook has more than 500 million users, Gmail's user base is estimated at a bit over 200 million.

      Clearly, Google has some work ahead on the social network front.

      Even Skype has millions more users than Gmail. The only question that comes to my mind is if Google will create its own base of users or cannibalize from the competition? As always, time will tell.