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!"

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