Google Voice

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.

Google Voice UI (click to enlarge)

Google Voice UI (click to enlarge)

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:

  1. Pick up the call
  2. Send the call to voicemail
  3. 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:

Google Voice Transcription Engine

Google Voice Transcription Engine

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.

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11 Responses to Google Voice

  1. Zack UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I got an invite for this too. Trying to figure out how it would help me in the real world…but I can’t seem to figure that out! I guess I don’t have that much of a need for a service like this.

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  2. David UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I’m not sure if you saw this already, but gizmo5 has a free call-in service and I think free call-out (limited to 5min iirc, but hey- still free) if you link it to google voice.

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  3. Rob UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I got my invite last week and am real excited about it. I’ve started doing some freelance work for one of my former professors and might branch out from there and try to pick up some more freelance work so I’ll probably use the service as a quasi business number. I’ll probably also use it for dealing on Craigslist. That way I won’t have to give out my actual cell phone number.

    I’d like to see them integrate with Skype somehow, but I know they probably won’t.

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  4. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’ve been using this since it was grandcentral, and I love it. The voicemail transcriptions are decent, you can get the gist from them, but more importantly you can get them texted to you.

    When we moved out of state two years ago, we got a google voice (then grand central) number which was local to where we moved. So we kept our old number for a while until everyone got switched over to the new one.

    When we dropped vonage and got cell phones, we didn’t have to tell everyone about a new number. We simply changed where google voice forwarded to – since everyone already had that number.

    Now my wife and I both have cell phones, but no home phone. What if someone just wants to talk to one of us? Our google voice number forwards to both our cell phones.

    Personally, I turned off the requirement to self identify (and listen in) since I found it annoying – I like to pick up the phone and just talk. But the ability to send certain numbers straight to voicemail (including a blanket rule for those not in my contacts), is worth its weight in gold.

    When traveling in Europe, my brother used google voice to text for free. My brother has a NY cell, but uses google voice to get a local number at college. My father gives out his google voice number so if they take his work cell phone, his personal contacts don’t even notice. When using customer service, I have had google voice record the call. When my father is at work, google voice forwards to his work phone, but after 5pm on weekdays it forwards to his cell.

    There are dozens of other reasons google voice is so awesome, but I have to stop somewhere. It is a great service!

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  5. Wow! This sounds like a pretty awesome service! Like many Google services, I wonder, “how do they expect to make any money from this?”

    Remember when webmail services only gave you a pathetic 10mb of space? Google came along and cranked that up by two orders of magnitude and really raised the bar. Now anything with less than 5GB is a joke.

    I think we’ll see something like that happen here. We’ll see some copycat services (that’s a good thing), and it might even push phone companies to try a little harder. Even if you don’t want to specifically use Google’s service, whatever you do use will improve, thanks to Google pushing the envelope.

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  6. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I signed up, got an invite but damn! It’s not available in Singapore.

    Bummer…. :(

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  7. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I love Google’s online services, but cannot stand anything they make that requires you to install something to your PC. I find the Google installable products to be invasive, much like Apple’s crap-pile apps.

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  8. Lironah UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Ohmigosh! I think I’ve found a kindred spirit. Google and gaming and the same opinion about each of the latest comic book movies? I’m blogging about you tomorrow. :D

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Zack: Yeah, it seems of limited use for purely personal stuff – especially since all the people that call me already know my cell phone number and it would be a hassle to make them use this new one. :P

    I do see one good application – when you are job hunting give it out to prospective employees. This way you can monitor the calls much easier.

    @ Rob: Yup, that’s exactly the type of stuff this is useful for. Craigslist, freelance business and etc..

    I don’t see it ever getting integrated with Skype though, because Google Talk already has the voice chat/calling option.

    @ jambarama: Wow, you are really getting a lot of use out of it. It really has great potential – the initial problem is starting to use it. Right now, the people that call me often, know my cell phone already. I’m sure that with time I will get more use out of it, just like you did. :)

    @ Chris Wellons: Yup. This is one of the reasons why I love Google despite their semi-evil near-monopoly on search, and the privacy concerns. They make awesome products that actually push the envelope and make the interwebs a better place.

    @ Mart: Ah, that sucks. Then again, I can sort of see how it would be a logistic nightmare to get this service running all over the world. They might get there one day, but I’d expect them to first expand it into Europe – if they plan to expand it at all. It might remain a US-only thing forever.

    Still, you could get a local US number to get messages and text for free with people in US like jambarama’s brother. Which would only be useful if you had friends/family in US that is.

    @ Steve: Really? I actually like Chrome a lot. I also found the Google Talk UI to be like 100 times better than what AIM was offering at the time.

    @ Lironah: LOL! Awesome!

    Btw, I do watch anime. I never picked up sword fighting, but it is one of these things I always wanted to do but never had time or people to do it with. :)

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  10. Shae UNITED STATES Mozilla Linux says:

    Great, yet another google service for me to use. I am much like you in that I seem to now be using Google for everything, but I feel like we are quickly running out of options now that Yahoo made a deal with Microsoft. Personally, I am not the hugest fan of Microsoft so now I am left to Google everything under the sun.

    I, for one, accept our new Google overlords.

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  11. Andrew Zimmerman UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    I used Google voice for my voicemail when I had a gophone. Now that I have an iphone I just use the builtin visual voicemail but still.

    It’s an awesome option in itself, and it’s another great addition to the android suite… great proxy for talking to people you don’t trust over the phone..

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