Sunday, July 19

Let's Talk ... About Google Voice

I'm a fan of Google. I have been for years. Google was the best search engine when we didn't know what search engines were good for, and they're still the best search engine even though Bing isn't half bad. I use Google Calendar to keep track of my life, Gmail serves as my webmail, email archive, and spam filter, and I use Google Documents more often than I do Open Office or Microsoft Office (I also introduced it to the Into Tomorrow show when it was still called Writely; today it forms the core of how the show coordinates...well, everything).

Oh, and this blog is hosted on Blogger, which is also a Google product.

So I'm a fan. We've all got that. For what it's worth, I don't get paid anything by Google and in fact I've never even met anyone of consequence who works for the company.

I was therefore quite pleased to get an invite to try Google Voice. This is their new telephony service that gives you a single telephone number that will ring multiple phones at the same time, with brilliantly fast voicemail and text messaging built in. After testing it out this week, I've compiled a list of my top five favorite things about Google Voice.

1. One Number to Rule Them All. Part of the sign up process for Google Voice is to choose a telephone number. They have them in all area codes it seems, and I was able to find one in the 954. (Hey! Do I sound like I'm all cool and stuff when I use phrases like "in the 954?" It would be nice to sound cool. At least once.)

After you've selected your phone number, then you link it to one or more of your existing phones. I linked mine to my cell phone and my home phone. Now, when someone calls my Google Voice number, BOTH PHONES ring at the same time. If I take the call on one phone, the other one stops ringing.

A buddy of mine told me yesterday that he HATED this feature, because he doesn't want people to be able to find him nor does he want to give up the excuse that he's missed their call. I suppose there is some point in that, but until I go into the Witness Protection Program, I don't seem to mind if people can find me more easily.

2. Voicemail to Text Transcription, Instantly. If I don't answer either phone, or I decide after answering and hearing who is calling to shunt the call to voicemail, Google Voice takes a message. In just SECONDS (and I mean it was FAST!), there is an entry in the Google Voice inbox, accompanied by an email in MY inbox and a text message on my mobile phone, with a transcription of the voicemail.

If you're anything like me, the bane of your existence is listening to LONG and MEANDERING voicemails. First, you're irritated. Eventually you begin to SCREEEEEAAAAAM at them, demanding that they get to the point! Having voicemails transcribed to text lets me get the entire thing at a glance, discretely, and it doesn't require me to stop what I'm doing and call in to play back the message.

Of course, you CAN play back the message if you want to, either from the Google Voice inbox, your email inbox, or even your text message. I've been comparing the transcriptions to the actual recorded messages, and so far they are extremely accurate.

3. Integrates with My Contacts. My contacts are maintained in three places. I have them in the Contacts application on my Palm Treo, in the address book on Mozilla Thunderbird, and in Google Contacts. The last one serves as the center hub, I suppose, since my Treo synchronizes with Google Contacts using GooSync (an excellent service, by the way, if you want to synchronize a handheld device with Google Calendar and Contacts), and Mozilla Thunderbird synchronizes with Google Contacts using the Zindus add-on.

So no matter where a Contact is entered or edited, eventually the information propagates around to all three places. All automatically, without me having to do a thing. I do something similar with my calendar. I love this system; it is a great boost to my level of organization.

Since Google Voice uses Google Contacts, when a call comes in routed through them, it will both send the caller's number to my Caller ID (as opposed to Google Voice's number) and it will announce the caller by name when I answer the call, which is very useful on the home phone because I don't have Caller ID on every handset.

Best of all, I don't have to do anything additional or different in order to keep this all up to date.

4. Integrated Inbox For Messages And Texts. Google Voice has a web based inbox feature that looks a lot like Gmail. There is a mobile version I can access from my Treo and a nice gadget for my iGoogle home page, so I can see who has called and what message they left at a glance. If someone sends a text message to my Google Voice number, that's forwarded to my cell phone. The text message comes from Google Voice, in this case, so my reply goes back to them and is forwarded to the original sender.

This allows Google Voice to keep a record of both sides in any text message conversation, and it stores these in the same inbox as my voicemails. In short, the Google Voice inbox gives me a permanent record of everything that I might otherwise forget, and there is no need to call in to a voicemail system, or even track down a telephone, in order to access it. It's fast and convenient.

5. Switch Phones in Mid Call, Silently. Google Voice offers conference calling for up to four participants and as a related service, it will let you switch from one phone to another in mid call. Here's how it works. Let's say you call my Google Voice number and I answer on the home phone. We're not done with our conversation yet, but it's time for me to leave. Instead of telling you to call me back on my cell phone, I just press the star button on my phone and the other lines, in this case my cell phone, begin to ring. When I answer, Google Voice conferences the three calls together and then I can hang up on the one I'm not going to use, leaving the other part intact.

If my cell phone voice quality is good enough, the person I'm talking with might not even know I've just transferred their call.

There are a lot of other things Google Voice does. The ability to record phone calls, or to listen in as voicemails are being left (giving you the option of breaking in, if you realize this is an important call that should be taken right now), these are both powerful features. You should check the web site for the complete feature list. Believe me, it's long.

The five I've listed above were simply the ones that made the biggest impression on me.

When I showed Google Voice to my wife, who is a user of technology but not a geek like me (in other words, she's normal and like 99% of the world), she made the observation that this seemed as though it would do for someone what a receptionist in an office might do. It's true, when you think about it. It answers your phone, forwards calls, takes messages, organizes the "While You Were Out" slips (so to speak), and does this all for free.

In these hard economic times, we all need to take advantage of any technology that lets us do more with less. Google Voice does a LOT more, for a lot less. It's on an invite-only status right now, like Gmail once was, but you should be able to get your own account very soon.

Oh, before I end this, let me mention one thing about this service. It's not designed to just be an uber-voicemail system. You don't forward your existing phones to Google Voice. It's not the LAST thing in the telephony chain, it's the FIRST. I've seen complaints from people who are trying to use it as a simple voicemail service (like J2's service, for instance). If you're not letting Google Voice take the incoming calls and manage them for you, then you're misusing the service and you probably won't like it very much (or, at least, not AS much).

Soon, you'll be able to port existing phone numbers to Google Voice. Perhaps that will help people who just didn't want to update everyone with yet ANOTHER new number to call. Or perhaps people are cranky and stubborn, and will be determined to pound their square peg into this round hole.

In the meantime, just browse the list of available numbers and snap up one that's easy to remember. If you try the service, leave me a comment and tell me what you think of it, and why.


fadetosepia said...

I think you've nailed all the selling points to Google Voice. I've had it since Grand Central in 2007 and have to admit, I haven't started using it regularly until lately since I thought Google left it for dead since there were no innovations till now.

I'm a big fan of Google Voice now and all my contacts have my number. I'm starting to blog about my experiences and challenges. Would like to start up a community of regular members to nail out the bugs. Visit Google Voice Talk.

Fuzzyman57 said...

Cool article Mark! Great info and I love your writing style. I too am a big fan of Google, but my favorite is Google Maps, I absolutely rely on it for trip planning.

Have a great one!