Monday, November 23, 2009

New Piece of the Google Voice Puzzle

Today I discovered some news that's pretty interesting... if not brand new, only a few weeks old. I've been using Google Voice for some time now (ever since it was GrandCentral before Google purchased it), and I've known for a long time that it supported something called "Gizmo." I looked into Gizmo a while back to see what it was, and it's a voice-over-IP (VoIP) system, much like Skype. At the time I didn't have a headset anyway so there was no way for me to make a Gizmo call, so I didn't look into it further at the time.

A few days ago I was given a headset for use on WebEx conferences at work, and today I took a look at the Gizmo Web site to see if I might want to start using Gizmo in conjunction with my Google Voice account. Turns out there might be no need... new user account activation has been suspended, because Gizmo has been bought by... wait for it... Google! Take a look at the blog post about the acquisition.

There's a lot of speculation about what Google is up to, and by much more plugged-in people than I, but here's what I know:

July 2005: Google buys Android, a company that made software for mobile phones.
July 2007: Google buys GrandCentral. Eventually they re-brand it as "Google Voice" and add some new features.
October 2008: Google Android cell phone operating system is released as open-source software.
October 2008-present: Android-based phones begin to filter out into the market; a big marketing push for the "Droid" Android phone happens just before the holiday season (have you seen Verizon's demo?). Some see it as the first serious contender for the iPhone.
Mid-2009: rumors begin to circulate about a "Google Phone" (Android phone with Google branding, with hardware specifications by Google and with no customizations to Android.)
November 2009: Google buys Gizmo.

(I will have to note right here why I'm mentioning Android. Part of the lure of Google Voice is that you can use it with multiple phones, but the way it does this is that when you tell Google Voice to place a call, it first calls you and then when you answer, it calls the other party. Not a problem, but not the way phones usually work, either, or at least not since the days when you called a human operator and she called you back when your party was available! On Android phones, it is possible to fully integrate Google Voice into the phone's OS, so that when you dial a number on the phone, it seamlessly uses Google Voice. No callback to you at all! So if you use Google Voice, having an Android phone is very much to your advantage.)

You would have to be completely dense to not see all of these things coming together. Google is clearly serious about this telephony thing. I've been wondering why Google hasn't been introducing any new features in Google Voice lately, despite the fact that they have a "suggestion box"-style form on the Google Voice site; clearly they've been holding off because they expected to incorporate some cool Gizmo tech later on and avoid re-inventing the wheel. So presumably as soon as Google feels comfortable that the Gizmo architecture can handle the number of new users they will be throwing at it, the Gizmo features will be incorporated into the Google Talk client (which already does PC-to-PC calling... and which uses the same XMPP protocol for chat as the Gizmo software does) and Google "Talk" and Google "Voice" will (finally?) merge into one uber-service (this might also explain why Google Voice and Google Talk have remained separate for so long up to this point). Add in the reported Google Phone hardware, and you've got a pretty full-blown telephony system going on here. Look out, AT&T! Look out, Verizon and Sprint! Google may be coming to town, and they may take a bite out of your apple!

Update: I figured out a way to get to the Gizmo Knowledgebase, and learned something else that I find interesting. Not only can the Gizmo software chat with MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and AOL Instant Messenger (and Google Talk), but it can actually place VoIP calls to contacts on those services! So if Google incorporates that tech into Google Talk, GT may well become the first of the "official" IM clients that can talk to just about anyone who uses instant messaging. The only thing Gizmo doesn't support on those calls is the video portion of the equation. I so wish I had signed up for Gizmo before they closed it up for new users! Maybe current Google Voice users will get first crack at it once they open things back up.

[Full disclosure (of irony): Blogger (the service on which this blog resides) is owned by Google. I don't work for Google, and I'm not shilling for them. I just thought it was funny that I was talking about this on their own blogging platform. Acquired in 2003. No, I don't see Blogger as part of the telephony picture. :) ]


Anyone who spends any amount of time using a computer discovers that a good text editor can be your best friend. I even found that to be the case back in my brief stint using a Mac/Amiga setup at work in the mid-'90s. Even further back, back when the world was young, I loved a DOS editor called PC Write. Not only could this thing control printer formatting and edit files of almost any size, but it could actually find-and-replace things like tabs and newline characters. That editor was the first piece of shareware that I ever paid to register... it was that good. It even had a built-in thesaurus!

I hung on to PC-Write for several years even after I got into the Windows universe, but eventually I realized that it was just going to be better to go with something that was integrated into Windows... for example, you couldn't easily copy and paste to and from the Windows clipboard from PC-Write. I needed to start using a Windows program. Windows Notepad is handy mainly because it is a true text editor (in contrast with Wordpad, which is liable to insert who-knows-what control characters into your document) and because it's pretty much always present on any Windows machine (and basically always the same, although I haven't used it on Windows 7 yet). But if you want to do anything other than typing characters and some light find and replace, Windows Notepad just doesn't cut it.

So we techies tend to find our own favorite text editors. If you don't have one yet, why not give my favorite a try: metapad! Metapad does not have an installer; you download it, unzip it, and click the icon to run it... I typically create a "metapad" folder in the C:\Program Files directory and unzip it there, then I create a shortcut to the executable in the Program Files folder and add C:\Program Files to the XP environment variables (right-click My Computer, choose "Properties", "Advanced" tab, "Environment Variables" button, add "C:\Program Files" to the end of the Path's "Variable Value") so I can just type "metapad" into the start/run dialog and get on the way to editing right away. I also set it as the default editor for .txt files, and sometimes some other file types as well. But because no installation is required, you can carry it around in your pocket on a flash drive as well (and I do). I plug in the flash drive and click the icon and I'm in business.

Metapad can do everything that Windows Notepad can do, but it takes several of those things to the next level. In a PC-Write-like feature, it is able to find and replace newline characters and tabs; I use that frequently when cleaning up snippets of code or when editing csv exports from MS Excel or other sources. There is an option to turn hyperlinks within the file into live links, so you can click directly on them and open a browser to the site. Word Wrap can be on or off, just like Notepad, so you can display files just as they actually exist or you can make sure every character is visible. You can mark a block of text and change it to all-uppercase, all-lowercase, "title case" (every word capitalized), "sentence case" (first word of each sentence capitalized), or "invert" the case of the marked block (every capital letter switched to lower-case and vice-versa). You can jump directly to a line number, which can come in very useful when editing code. And check this out: there is no file size limit! If you load a file that is larger than the memory of the computer can hold, metapad uses some clever paging to load as much of the file at once as it can, and it loads the rest of it as needed. Good stuff!

There are editors out there with a billion functions in them, ten of which you will use and the rest of which you will immediately forget that they even exist, or if you remember that they exist, you'll immediately forget how they work. Metapad has a fairly small number of functions, but the ones that are there are easy to use and worth discovering. There are a few functions that I haven't mentioned here (external viewer support, commit word wrap, support of text files from different platforms, etc.) but the feature set remains very basic... just what you need for the task at hand, and nothing more. It's like the perfect little Swiss army knife, the one with just the blade, the can opener, and the nail file, but not the toothpick/tweezers/magnifying glass/extensible fishing pole. It has just the feature set you need with no fluff. Give it a try!