Sunday, July 11, 2010

Google Voice - try it, you'll love it!

Yes, Google Voice is now open to all takers (in the U.S.). Most important thing: it's free!!! Yes, you read that right: FREE. And - no advertising!

Some history: A couple of years ago, Google bought a company called GrandCentral. Their service allowed you to unify all your phone numbers into a single one, and when people called that number, all your phones would ring. People thought that Google was letting it languish, but recently they unveiled Google Voice, based on the GrandCentral platform. The good news is that they have added a host of new features, to the point where I am stunned, I tell you - stunned! But don't just blindly believe what I have to say; read more about it here (David Pogue is the NYTimes technical expert, and he is thorough and impartial).

What does it do? Let me count the ways (well, some of them):
  • It unifies all your phone numbers - when someone calls you on your Google Voice number (yes, you get your own number - more below), all your phones ring. At that point, you have a number of choices (while the caller keeps hearing a ring tone): you can choose to accept the call, you can send it to voicemail, you can answer and record the call, or you can listen to the voicemail in real time, and pick up while the caller is leaving a message!
  • Your number: When you sign up, Google allows you to select a number. You choose an area code and, optionally, any sequence of letters or digits you want included. It will then do a search of available numbers, and you can select the one you want. You can do this search many times over until you are happy with your choice. If only the telcos would offer that! Note: You don't have to get a number - you can sign up for just the Google Voice features on your existing number(s).
  • You get your own voicemail box of course, but listen to this: If you like, Google will alert you to voicemails at your email address(es), or text you at any of your numbers. But here's the kicker: If you like, Google will transcribe your messages, and turn them into emails for you. It's not perfect of course - voice recognition is still tricky in software, but I've been experimenting with it and it's pretty damn good, even with my pseudo-British accent. This allows you to store your voicemails as textual emails. How cool is that?!?!
  • You can customize who hears what greeting you have recorded - in other words, your friends might hear one greeting, while your business contacts hear another. You can even have one for unknown numbers, telling them that you don't accept calls from strangers - and you can then hang up, automatically!
  • Additionally, you can customize the times when each of your actual phones will ring, as well as whose calls you will accept at certain times - useful if you don't want to be disturbed at 3am by just anyone, but you want to give, for example, your ailing parent 24-hour access.
  • They have apps for smartphones, so that you can control all of this amazing stuff remotely.
  • Cheap international calling. Truly, they are the cheapest I've seen. Example: To call South Africa from the U.S., the rate is typically 10¢ on other services. Google Voice? 5¢!!! Yes, a nickel a minute to call the other side of the world. That's $3.00 an hour. I mean, honestly... what more could you want?
Well, a lot more as it turns out - there are so many options that it's mind-blowing. (One disappointment: Right now, they can only offer the service in the U.S. Given the tight integration with the phone system, I can understand this.)

Interestingly, there's precedent for a service like this. Who remembers the 500 numbers the phone companies tried to sell at one point? C'mon, 'fess up - you never even knew about it, did you?! This was, as I recall, about 20 years ago - I even had my own 500 number. Again, the idea was unification of all one's numbers. But the idea never took off - maybe because, like many things in telco land, they wanted to charge entirely too much for the service. I think the way it worked was signup was free, but there was a charge every time someone dialed your 500 number, and it wasn't an insignificant amount, either.

I highly recommend Google Voice. Have I signed up? Mais oui! My chosen number? [Note: I have substituted the area code and two of the actual digits with question marks, because I don't want my entire number broadcast here! You can still call me by using the gadget at the top of this page, on the left.] +1‑???‑??4‑6429. Why? Well, it spells +1‑???‑??‑IM‑GAY. Say no more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'll have to talk to you more about this on Tuesday. Seems pretty awesome