Millions of people have more than one phone number these days — home, work, cellular, hotel room, vacation home, yacht — and with great complexity comes great hassle. You have to check multiple answering machines. You miss calls when people try to reach you on your cell when you’re at home (or the other way around). You send around e-mail messages at work that say, “On Thursday from 5 to 8:30, I’ll be on my cell; for the rest of the weekend, call me at home.”

And when you switch your job, cellphone carrier or home city, you have to notify everyone you know that you have new phone numbers.

A new service called GrandCentral, now in its final weeks of public beta testing, solves all of these problems. It’s a rather brilliant melding of cellphone and the Internet.
Its motto, “One number for life,” pretty much says it all. At, you choose a new, single, unified phone number. You hand it out to everyone you know, instructing them to delete all your old numbers from their Rolodexes.

From now on, whenever somebody dials your new number, all of your phones ring simultaneously.
No longer will anyone have to track you down by dialing each of your numbers in turn. No longer does it matter if you’re home, at work or on the road. Your new GrandCentral phone number will find you.
As a bonus, all messages now land in a single voice mail box. You can listen to them in any of three ways. First, you can dial in from any phone (a text message arrives on your cellphone to let you know when you have voice mail). If you call in from your cellphone, you don’t even have to enter your password first.

You can also play your messages on the Web, at, and download them as audio files to preserve for posterity. You can even ask to be notified by e-mail; a link in the e-mail message takes you online to play the voice mail.

All of this, incredibly, is free if you have only two phone numbers to consolidate. A premium plan, at $15 a month, offers more of everything.

There are only two substantial downsides to becoming involved with GrandCentral. First, GrandCentral offers you a choice of about 20 numbers, but it doesn’t yet offer phone numbers in every area code, so your next-door neighbor may wind up having to dial an out-of-town number to reach you. In 14 central states, in fact, GrandCentral offers no numbers at all. (You can see what’s available at

Otherwise, this unification of all your phones and answering machines truly makes life less complicated.

GrandCentral offers a huge list of additional features that aren’t so simple. If you’re not careful, GrandCentral can turn into a full-blown hobby. For example:

CALLER NAMING Every GrandCentral caller is announced by name when you answer the phone.
How does it know the name? Sometimes Caller ID supplies it. GrandCentral also knows every name in your online address book, which can import your contacts from
Yahoo, Gmail or your e-mail program.
Callers not in these categories are asked to state their names the first time they call. On subsequent calls, GrandCentral recognizes them.

LISTEN IN For what may be the first time in cellphone history, you can listen to a message someone is leaving, just as you can on a home answering machine.
Your phone rings and displays the usual Caller ID information. You answer it. But before you can even say “Hello,” GrandCentral’s recording lady tells you the caller’s name, and then offers four ways to handle the call: “Press 1 to accept, 2 to send to voice mail, 3 to listen in on voice mail, or 4 to accept and record the call.” Your callers have no clue that all this is going on; they hear only the usual ringing sound.

If you press 3, the call goes directly to voice mail — but you get to listen in. If you feel that the caller deserves your immediate attention, you can press * to pick up the call.
This subtle feature can save you time, cellular minutes and, in certain cases of conflict-avoidance, emotional distress.

RECORD THE CALL Hitting 4 during a call begins recording it; GrandCentral then treats the recording as a voice mail message. Here again, you can immortalize the historic calls of your life, or just create a replayable record of driving directions. GrandCentral notes that laws in some states require both parties to know that a call is being recorded.

RINGBACK MUSIC This bizarre little feature is evidently popular with young cellphone users in Europe, but is still rare in the United States. It lets you replace the ringing sounds the caller hears while waiting for you to answer with music—in GrandCentral’s case, any MP3 file of your choice.

CUSTOMIZE GREETINGS Control freaks, rejoice. You can actually record a different voice mail greeting for each person in your address book: “Hi, sugarcheeks” for your sweetheart; “Can’t take your call right now, I’m out looking for a better job” for your mother.

You can also specify, on a per person basis, which of your phones ring, which ringback music plays and whether the call goes directly to voice mail.

Finally, you can tell GrandCentral to answer certain people’s calls with the classic three-tone “The number you have dialed is no longer in service” message. Telestalkers, bill collectors and ex-lovers come to mind. Never has technology been so deliciously evil.

SWITCH LINES Anytime during a call, you can press the * key to make all of your phones ring again, so that you can pick up on a different phone in midconversation, unbeknownst to the person on the other end. For example, if you’re heading out the door, you can switch a landline call to your cellphone — or as you arrive home, a cell call to a landline, in order to save airtime minutes.

WEB BUTTONS You can install a “call me” button on your Web site — a great, free way to field calls from your eBay, MySpace or dating-service Web page without actually posting your phone number.
All of this works smoothly and quickly, and the Web site does a noble job of organizing that dizzying number of functions. And all of these features are free, even those that would be expensive or unavailable from your phone company.

Still, you may be forgiven for feeling that GrandCentral’s central idea — a virtual phone number that’s not associated with a particular telephone — is too much of a radical brain-slamming change. You may also feel that the last thing your life needs is more phone calls reaching you successfully.

But anyone who spends some time contemplating GrandCentral’s possibilities will soon see the bigger picture: this service removes your location as a consideration in phone calling, much the same way that the TiVo makes a TV show’s broadcast time unimportant. In other words, GrandCentral has rewritten the rules in the game of telephone.

This post was annotated and reprinted from The NY Times Technology Section (3/15/2007).