Call me a Google fanboy, but I get excited each time they release a new product. I mean, all their software is free, has simple yet functional UI and usually does whatever it was designed to do very well. It’s actually sad how much I rely on their products.
I use Gmail for my mail, Google Reader for my RSS feeds, Google Calendar for my scheduling, Google Adsense for my website, and Google Notebook for grabbing quick quotes and notes from the web. I use Google Apps for my personal home page, and Google Code to host several of my programming projects. Not to mention the fact that Google as my main search engine, Youtube is where I upload all the videos I make (I don’t make many) and I use Google Maps when I need driving directions. A single company fulfills pretty much all my online needs.
Well, I do prefer Firefox over Chrome and Flickr over Picassa Albums but those seem to be exceptions to the general rule. Really, sometimes I think that my dependence on this company can’t be a good thing. But in most cases there are no good alternatives for their products. I know, because I looked!
And now, Google has created yet another another service for me too fall in love with. I signed up for Google Voice beta the minute I heard about it. That was several months ago, and they finally sent me an invite. And let me tell you, I’m already in love with this service.
What does it do? It gives you a virtual phone number and a voice mail box. It doesn’t sound that impressive when I put it like that, but it really is cool. But instead of just dryly listing the features of this service, let me tell you how it is going to improve my life come September.
As you know I teach a Fluency in Technology course at my good old Alma Matter university. I do have an office there but I share it with all the other adjuncts – this includes the phone extension and voice mail. Since I’m hardly ever there, and I don’t feel like dealing with the ancient phone we have there I decided to set up a virtual voice box where students could leave me messages.
I mean, I could just give out my cell phone number but I didn’t want to. I have a very basic calling plan, and if if people started calling me about homeworks and grades I would probably burn through it really quickly. I also didn’t want my personal voicemail getting filled out with messages from students. That, and then there is that whole privacy thing.
For the last two semesters I have been using Simple Voice Box service which while serviceable has several flaws. For one, it counts as a long distance call no matter where you dial it from. Two, it’s interface is kinda clunky and unintuitive. Thee, you have to use like a 6 digit extension which is inconvenient.
This is where Google Voice comes in. It does the same thing, only better. The number is free, UI feels like Gmail and the caller doesn’t need to dial an extension. The number you get is uniquely yours and you don’t share it with anyone else. And if this wasn’t enough, the service has all sorts of nifty features on top of it.
You can set up your virtual number to forward all the calls to a real phone you own. This can be your cell, your work phone, your home number – whatever. You can change that phone at any time so for example, if you leave your cell at home, you can redirect all your calls to your work phone, or even a borrowed cell for example. This in itself is a very cool feature.
The number will also accept and forward text messages which I plan to exploit in September. I’ll tell my students that they can just text message me on this number if they want to. And I will be able to respond to the text without ever actually revealing my real phone number. Furthermore, at any time I can just enable the “do not disturb” feature and simply send all the calls and SMS’s to the online interface bypassing my cell. How awesome is that?
Did I mention the call screening feature yet? When someone calls the virtual number, by default they will be asked to say their name. When Google Voice forwards the call, it will play back the recorded name and then give you an option to:
- Pick up the call
- Send the call to voicemail
- Send the call to voicemail and listen in
Yup, you can listen in as the person leaves you a message. It is worth getting this service for that feature alone!
Each voicemail in your inbox will be automatically transcribed by Googles voice to text engine. This feature is a bit of a hit or miss. Sometimes it works, while other times it fails completely. As an example, I had a friend call me and say “Test 1 2 3” just too see how it will get transcribed. Google decided that he said “just wanted to really”. Here is another example of a message that my cousin left me:
The quality of that transcription leaves a lot to be desired. You can help to train the engine by clicking the “was this transcription useful” button but it will probably take a long time before this technology works reliably.
Still, I don’t particularly care that the transcription engine fails because all the other features are much more important to me. The transcription is a nice bonus, and I’m sure that it will get better in time. Google simply needs more voice samples to run through it. Their translation engine is actually quite decent, so I’m sure that once they reach a critical mass of users, and have plenty of real life voicemail data the quality of individual transcriptions will start going up.
I haven’t really used the Google Voice service extensively yet. I just got it, and I haven’t really had a chance to give it out to anyone yet – other the few people that helped me test it by making silly calls and leaving stupid messages. It will get a real test by fire in September and I will likely revisit it then. From what I’ve seen so far though, it seems extremely useful.
Now here is the bad news: they don’t seem to be giving out invites to new members the way they did with Gmail. This means I can’t invite you to the service. At least not yet. But you may still be able to sign up for the beta from the main page.