The Future of Google Voice on Android
I know I usually write about hacks, tips, tricks, and apps to help make your Android more useful. This article isn’t one of those. Instead I’d like to speculate with you for a few minutes, if you’ll allow me a little latitude. Let’s look at some history…
GrandCentral was a little company that made good on the promise of a universal phone number and all-in-one inbox for voice messages and texts. I was an early subscriber to GrandCentral and was one of the first to experience Google’s vision after they acquired GrandCentral. More on that in a moment.
In November 2009 it was reported that Google picked up Gizmo5, a VoIP (voice over internet protocol) provider. So far we haven’t seen much come from this acquisition, but we hope to start seeing VoIP capabilities in Google products. Maybe we already are.
Need to order a pizza? No problem, pick up your phone, dial 1-800-GOOG-411 and tell Google the name and city you’re looking for. Google will then speak the results back and will even dial the number of the pizzeria you choose. (Of course it’s not limited to just pizza.) 1-800-GOOG-411 uses VoIP to connect you with your selected result.
Google Voice for Android and iPhone
Google released an app for Android and iPhone (then an HTML5 web app when Apple rejected the app) which would allow you to make outgoing calls using your cell phone and the Google Voice service. Doing so logs your calls in your Google Voice out-box but more importantly displayed your Google Voice number to the person on the other end.
Google used VoIP to connect the callers, but not in the traditional sense. You see, VoIP usually has a handset that connects to a network and directs your call over the internet to the other party, or, if the other party is on a traditional (non-VoIP) line, your call is routed to the closest server that can connect the last leg of your call over regular phone lines.
But the Google Voice app didn’t work that way. It used your data connection to tell Google who you were calling and got back the closest Google Voice Access Number. Your phone then dialed that number and was connected over VoIP to the other end. Not only does this send your Google Voice number to the recipient, it also allows you access to VoIP (and its associated cost savings) without having to have a dedicated VoIP provider, ATA equipment, router configurations, etc.
Sound confusing? It is. And that’s been Google main stumbling block with Google Voice. VoIP is confusing enough, but Google’s odd implementation of it is even more so. Sure, it makes sense once you know and understand all the details, but to the average person, it’s just difficult to comprehend.
Back on non-Android computers, Google added the ability to type a name or phone number into the Google Voice website (or Chrome Extension) and pick which of your lines to ring to complete the call. You could type your co-worker’s number into the box, press the dial button, and seconds later your desk phone (or cell) would ring, then Google Voice would complete the call. Pretty handy, but it still needed the two ends of the call to be traditional phones, VoIP was only in the middle.
In April, TechCrunch reported that Google “built a Google Voice desktop application to make and receive calls” that it was testing internally, integrated ironically with Gmail, not Google Voice. This, essentially, would allow Google employees to use their computer’s speakers and microphone to handle the audio of the phone call and use VoIP to connect to the other party on a traditional phone line. Finally! But it’s not available to the public — yet. Nor is it available on Android — that we know of.
For now, Google Voice’s integration with Gmail is not available to the public, or on handhelds.
Where does that leave us?
Once Google finishes polishing the end-to-end VoIP solution on the desktop/laptop platform I can only imagine they’ll include true, end-to-end VoIP in their mobile app as well. This could allow you to have an Android device and have a fully functioning phone whenever you’re under a data bubble (WiFi, WiMax, 4G, 3G, or even EDGE, though GPRS is likely too slow).
AT&T’s recent unlimited iPad data plan for $25/month was seen by many as the Holy Grail.
One could buy an unlocked phone, pop in a $25 unlimited SIM and be able to surf the web, make and receive phone calls and texts, and do everything that one could otherwise do with a data plus voice plan for only the cost of the data plan — everything at that point would be data: voice calls, text messages, email, video, video calls, web surfing, internet radio, internet TV, streaming on-demand video, etc.
Could this be the real reason that AT&T pulled their unlimited data plans? Will Google Voice eventually offer end-to-end VoIP on Android?