Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Google Voice

"GrandCentral is the BOMB!" I read on a message board. It was late 2008, and I had never heard of GrandCentral before, but I looked it up and it was looking pretty cool. Using GrandCentral I could get a brand-new phone number for free, and set things up so that calling that number would ring me up at work or at home! I wouldn't have to give people an either-or on a phone number any more! And since it is frowned upon where I work to give out the private "direct" number to people other than immediate family (instead having people call the switchboard and speak to our very sweet receptionist), I figured I might be able to give out this number to friends and not give them the direct line number.

Well, I was right on all counts... I was able to set things up so people could reach me at home or at work, and there are a number of other great advantages I gained as well. GrandCentral, now re-branded Google Voice, also allows me to get my personal voice mails in my Google Voice account (while my work voice mails land in my work voice mail), and even set up a schedule so that my Google Voice number doesn't ring my home phone during the day when my wife is at home but I'm at work. It's great!

There have been so many good tutorials and posts of Google Voice features that I'm not going to waste too much time rehashing easy-to-find information. Even I have already mentioned Gizmo5+Google Voice on this blog, and I've also already mentioned Google Voice's cell phone applications here as well. If you have a cell phone (I do not), you can have GV ring both your land line and your cell phone, and then you can answer whichever one is convenient. In fact, you can switch your call from one to the other midstream (for example, I could answer my Google Voice call at work, switch to my cell phone for the bus ride home, and then when I got home, switch to my land line, and the person on the phone need never know the conversation happened on three separate phones). There are tons of cool features to talk about, but I wanted to mention the very few things that I wish were different about Google Voice.

The one that bugs me the most right now is that Google has not yet re-released Gizmo5 after acquiring it. I even took a look at eBay for accounts... sure enough, they are there to be had! Funny how people will pay twenty bucks for something they could have gotten for free a month ago! :) Once Google reopens Gizmo5 (I expect its capabilities to be folded into Google Talk, myself) I will be able to answer my GV calls through my computer headset. And that will be AWESOME!

I wish Google Voice was able to support SMS short codes. These are the five- or six-digit "text this number with your cell phone" codes that usually connect you with services (for example, in the U.S. you can tweet to Twitter by texting your tweet to 40404, or update your Facebook by texting 32665). The way I understand it, on regular land-line service the number is sent a digit at a time, but on cell phones the number is sent all at once, which makes these short codes possible, and they are by agreement between cell phone carriers. My assumption is that because Google Voice is not a cell phone carrier, it does not have access to those agreements. It's a shame, because SMS short codes are so prevalent these days that I know this one thing is enough to turn people off from using Google Voice exclusively. I use the SMS-to-a-full-cell-number feature almost daily, though, and it works great! Even without a cell phone, I can text friends. It's kind of hard to explain to them, actually!

Google Voice also does not support MMS messages, which are multimedia SMS-style messages (if you've ever texted someone a snapshot on your phone, you've used this). For some people this is apparently a deal-breaker, but honestly, these days everybody's phone has email. Why would you want to send this kind of stuff via text message?

It would sure be nice for Google to roll out wide support for porting cell phone numbers to GV. This has been being talked about for some time now, and I have actually read articles from people who have been allowed to do it... but it's not easy or free (actually, according to Google, it's not even available yet). There is a procedure you can go through to set up your cell phone so that calls go to Google Voice voice mail instead of your carrier's voice mail, so that's partway there, but that's just a consolation prize. One more thing that might cause a long-time cell-phone user to not try it out.

Recently an idea occurred to me that would be a super-cool addition to Google Voice. I sent it in on their feedback form, but I thought I would share it here as a dream feature that I hope they will add one day. For background, I mentioned that I have Google Voice ring my home phone, but only outside of business hours when I can be expected to be home, not during the day when I'm at the office but my wife is home. You can set up individual ring schedules for each telephone you list with Google Voice, and there are two separate schedules, a "weekday" schedule and a "weekend" schedule. So on my "weekday" schedule, I have my home phone ringing only between the time I generally get home after work and the time I generally leave the next morning, and I have my office phone ringing during our normal office hours. On the weekend I have the home phone ringing and the office phone not ringing. If I had a cell phone, I would probably set it up to ring all of the time. What I would like to see would be a third ring schedule, a "holiday" or "vacation" schedule. This would be the phones you want to ring, say, on Memorial Day, which would normally be a weekday "work" day but which you might get off work for, or say on the week that you take the family to Disney World for vacation. When I'm at home on a 3-day weekend, I do need my home phone to ring, but I don't need my office phone to ring, but when the holiday is over, I need to revert to my original settings. Right now I have to change everything manually, which is an unnecessary hassle.

Now, to digress a little bit, GV has a "Do Not Disturb" mode that automatically sends all calls to voice mail without ringing the phone at all. Do Not Disturb mode is easily activated by clicking "Settings" and then the "Calls" tab and then checking a checkbox. Turning it off is even easier; the Google Voice screen has a "'Do Not Disturb' is enabled. Disable now" link right at the top of the screen. I would like to see my proposed "holiday mode" set up to trigger in two ways: one way would be manually, by checking or unchecking a checkbox, and the other way would be on a schedule. So I could set the first and last days of my vacation weeks ahead of time, and then it wouldn't be one more thing I would have to remember between plane schedules, luggage, putting a stop on the mail, etc. With enough flexibility, I could set up the holidays in my Google Voice the first week of January when the yearly holiday calendar is distributed at work, and not have to think about it again until twelve months later. How cool would that be?

I could go on and on about Google Voice's amazing features... voice-mail notifications in my email in-box, receiving and replying to SMS messages via my email account, email-style spam filtering of phone calls, customized outgoing message per contact (I could set it so my mom hears "Hi mom!" when she calls me, for example), contacts shared with Gmail address book, contacts available on the Web and on your cell phone, call "screening" by listening in (like you used to do with your Code-a-Phone machine back in the day!), free calls any time of day to anywhere in the United States. But I'll just end by saying that Google Voice has succeeded in making a huge number of telephone-related things much easier for me. I'm excited to see what Google has in mind for Gizmo5, and I'm interested in using a cell phone with Google Voice integrated into it, and I think Google Voice is a product that just about anyone could use and be thrilled with. I would pay for it if it cost money to use it; that's how indispensable it is. If one of the cell-phone carriers had anywhere near this kind of offering in their plan's online site, they would win customers because of it.

I'm just glad that my mom only has to remember one number to call me at work or home. "Hi mom!"

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cell Phones

I have long been a cell-phone conscientious objector. There are a number of reasons for this... there is the "people got along for decades without cell phones, what makes them such a necessity now?" argument. There's the argument that they're too darn expensive, and I stand by that one, although you can pretty easily find plain talk service these days for something like $10/month... as long as you're not interested in text messaging, data access, or any of the other things people do with their phones these days. But deep down, I know my main reason for not being interested in cell phones is that I just don't really like phone calls. I mean, I like talking to friends... I really do, and if you can manage to get me on the phone, you may have trouble getting rid of me! But I don't like two things about phone calls: placing the phone call, and receiving the phone call. And clearly, one or the other is necessary in order for a phone call to take place! The idea of calling someone when I don't know whether they're busy, angry, sleeping, or they just don't want to talk to me, fills me with an irrational dread. And the sound of the phone ringing still strikes a little bit of fear in my heart... who is it? What do they want? Will they try to make me do something I don't want to do? Will I have trouble getting them to let me end the call? Will I have to hang up on someone? The proliferation of Caller ID has mitigated this quite a bit, of course, but old attitudes die hard.

We probably still wouldn't have a cell phone at my house if it weren't for one person. That person's name is Hannah, and 2 and a half years ago, my wife was pregnant with her and insisted that her water could break in some remote place (unlikely, since she rarely goes anyplace without me anyway, especially when she's pregnant) and if she didn't have a cell phone, she wouldn't be able to reach help. "I'll only use it for emergencies!" she said, and I didn't believe her for a second (and I was right). I got her the free RAZR from AT&T (since they do our phone service anyway) and she was off to the races. I got her the smallest number of minutes and text messages possible, and with the rollover minutes and the fact that texting was godawful difficult on the RAZR, she never went over either.

Our 2-year contract went by and expired, and she had beat her RAZR all to heck. The corner of the metal button plate was bent up, and one section of it was actually missing. To this day neither of us really knows how that all happened, but it was clear that the RAZR was on its last legs. She was wanting a newer styled phone anyway... the whole flip-phone thing was so 2005!... so we picked her up a green LG Neon phone, one with a slide-out keyboard. The keyboard makes it much easier to send texts and Yahoo IMs (which count as texts), which means that now she's on a $100 plan with unlimited data & texts instead of the inexpensive low-minutes, low-texts plan we had before. That's the cell phone racket... hook you with a low base service cost, and then nickel and dime you to death with "extra" services that they know you really want!

Her new phone was the first phone I've really played with that actually had anything approaching usable Internet access (we never used data on the RAZR), and I have to say, now that mobile-enabled sites are so prevalent, it's hard not to make the decision to pick up a phone I can use to look up movie times any time and anywhere I want or write a quick email on the bus on the way home. I'm not sure I'd be happy with a phone like hers that is designed for texting and lighter Web access... to get me to carry around a snake in my pocket, it's darn well going to have to be a smartphone that I can use to look at virtually any Web site I want (my wife's phone on AT&T has trouble with some sites... for example, it can't load the mobile version of meebo). I'm not interested in an iPhone; in addition to being phoneophobic, I'm allergic to products made by Apple. :) Plus, the iPhone App Store doesn't have a dialer app for Google Voice any more, which basically makes it a deal-breaker for me... I love Google Voice!

The only dialer apps for Google Voice are for Android and Blackberry. I'm not too hip to the keyboard-below-the-screen layout of most of the Blackberry phones, so that would leave me with either a Blackberry Storm or an Android phone, and since I'm a big fan of Google products in general, it's very nearly a no-brainer to pick an Android phone. I've been waiting and waiting for something Android to come to AT&T, but I keep being disappointed... and since I'm not particularly getting that good of a deal with my land line/DSL/cell phone bundle, I don't see any reason to be loyal to our carrier, so that gives me options.

Until the first of the year, I was getting very interested in the Droid. Although I've heard that it's a little heavy compared to other smart phones, I like the idea of the slide-out keyboard (that's the big thing I like about my wife's phone). But then very late last December I started hearing about the new Google Phone, the Nexus One. Just the mere idea of the phone being a real Google phone sounded pretty cool to me, and it has some features that the Droid doesn't have (speech-to-text for all data entry boxes, for example), but as I began comparing things, it sounds like between the two, the Droid may just be the phone for me. There's that keyboard, for one thing. And most of the software differences will wind up on the Droid anyway when the new version of the Android OS gets pushed out to it. I actually dig the Droid Eris as well (pictured at the top of this blog post), but it doesn't have the slide-out keyboard.

Will I buy myself a Droid? Given unlimited funds, I probably would head to the Verizon store today and pick one up. I'll need to make sure I have the money to afford the $199 cost of the phone and also support my service plan (sheesh, it's like putting a kid through college!). If I suddenly had the funds to afford a phone, would I ever actually turn the ringer on? I don't know... I suspect the answer would be "rarely." If I felt the need to have a phone for talk, I would go for something much cheaper and not do the data stuff at all, but if I get a phone, for me it will be more like buying a tiny wireless computer/MP3 Player that unfortunately has a ringer on it than buying a telephone with Web access. Of course I'll use it for calls, but you'll be more likely to find me using Rhapsody, Google Maps, twitdroid or Evernote than Google Voice. Maybe the cell phone price wars that seem to be heating up will change that (or maybe not), but for now, you'll have to send me an email and I'll get it when I get home!

FURTHER READING: Here's an interesting Nexus One vs. Droid vs. iPhone shootout you can use to compare apples with (non-)apples a little bit...

MORE FURTHER READING: Wireless plans from Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint compared