Google Voice was supposed to be the future – so why is it stuck in the past?
In the summer of 2007, I had a problem – and the problem was too many phones.
As I revealed in a collaborative piece last week, I’ve always been a two-device kinda guy. That peculiar habit started well before that blistering summer season six years ago, but it was only then that the problems that came along with it became truly unbearable.
The number-one issue I encountered with carrying too many phones was, perhaps predictably, too many phone numbers. To be sure I was consistently reachable, friends and family either had to maintain two separate phone numbers for me, or I had to forward calls from one phone to the other when I decided to go out on the town with a single device. While forwarding worked fine for inbound calls, calling out was guaranteed to be a mess because I had no way of controlling my outbound caller ID; nine times out of ten, people would ignore the call from my blocked or unknown “second number,” only to call back after I’d left a voicemail and ask “so is this your new phone, or what?” Then I’d have to explain the whole situation – a decidedly unpleasant task back in the day when voice minutes were still at a premium. And this entire mess was compounded when it came to text messages, which had no capability whatsoever of being reliably forwarded from number to number.
Thing is, it’s not just the spoiled dual-gadget geeks of the world who were inconvenienced. Anyone who carried more than one mobile phone (for work, say) or who wanted the convenience of a single point of contact across mobile and landline phones was out of luck. This was a problem almost custom-made for a company like Google to solve.
But another company beat them to it. GrandCentral Communications came into being in 2005 (it was known as Grand Central Networks before that), but its product -essentially an intelligent call-routing service- didn’t come to my attention until two years later. And I was instantly hooked. While the company didn’t initially provide any SMS solutions, the phone number GrandCentral assigned to you was powerful: when people called it, all of your phones would ring. Cellular, landline; it didn’t matter. People could finally call one number to reach you – no matter which phone you were carrying. If you wanted to send them to voicemail, you could still do so – and you could listen in on their message as they were leaving it, if you so chose. That doesn’t sound so impressive today, but at the time, it was a pretty amazing offering – especially for the price GrandCentral was asking ($0).
Then Google, master of the long-term play, finally got around to investing in the voice side of things. Over a year before the T-Mobile G1/HTC Dream hit the market, when no one outside of geek circles had any idea what “Android” even was (outside of science fiction), Google bought GrandCentral for an estimated purchase price of above $50 million. And, after being developed in secret for another year-plus, the newly minted Google Voice rolled out to legacy GrandCentral users with hugely improved functionality in the spring of 2009.
The service’s improved capabilities would take some time to roll out completely, as would its transition from a glorified, closed beta to widespread availability. But after that tinkering was complete, Google Voice users found themselves behind the wheel of a service that offered near-total control of their telephone communications, including features like:
- Vanity phone numbers for a small fee
- SMS forwarding
- Special routing numbers to control outbound call and text caller-ID
- Browser-based message management
- In-browser calling ability
- Voicemail and SMS notifications via email, with reply capability
- Call blocking and call screening
- Low-cost international calling
- Switching phones during a call
On top of all this, users could opt for voicemail transcription, a service which used vocal recognition to transmute audio messages to readable emails. While not terribly useful due to the unreliable nature of the underlying technology, this service did win points for sheer hilarity.
Despite occasional hiccups like the above, though, Google Voice was on the whole a huge step forward in mobile communications. And not just for dual-device people, either: the simple act of managing text messages in a browser adds an incredible amount of convenience to heavy texters, and along with the option to forward messages to email, it’s also very appealing to those who want to avoid overpriced SMS packages. Making phone calls from the browser also saves on minutes, and the call-screening and blocking options are so useful I doubt I need to explain them. And then all of these features were amplified by their increased portability, in the form of official Google Voice smartphone apps. For a long while there, using Voice felt like using the future. And it was awesome.
But then something happened. And that something was nothing.
The limitations of Google Voice started as tolerable, or even cute, impediments: the occasional call wouldn’t be properly routed to the service’s voicemail system, or yet another transcript would come in full of funny-but-totally-unintelligible sentences. Those occasional irritations were forgivable at first, but they eventually grew tiresome. And they were soon joined by other issues. The special routing numbers Google Voice used (called “the 406 numbers” in the Google Product Forums because of their Montana origins) proved not as consistent as advertised, leading to irritating phonebook reorganizations – a problem still encountered when texting other Google Voice users. Latency of phone calls sent through Google Voice has remained higher than normal calls since the service was launched, the long volley times leading to cross-talk and a disconnected feel. Odd issues like random DTMF tones during calls have remained an annoyance of the service since launch. Google’s forums provide many more examples of strange issues among Voice users, issues that persist across carrier and regional boundaries.
That caption should make clear that I’m not oblivious to the irony of complaining about a free service. Voice, like most of Google’s products, costs almost nothing in terms of real money (though it’s true cost is another matter, for another discussion). So critiquing these relatively minor shortcomings or gaps in functionality might seem a bit much, especially considering Voice’s status as little more than a “hobby” project.
But Google, maybe more than any other mobile brand, exemplifies the future. The company’s products, philosophy, and even its business model are inherently futuristic in nature. Google continues to play a leading part in advancing the role of technology in our lives, and “writing the next chapters in communications history,” as some marketing firm might say. So when a service like Voice consistently misplaces my voicemails, I wonder why. When I can’t use my Google Voice number to receive automated SMS notifications from old-school companies like banks, that’s weird. And when I (still) can’t reliably receive picture messages on my formerly futuristic Google number, and (still) can’t partake in MMS-based group texts for the same reason … well, that’s just sad.
Maybe all these problems will disappear once Google rolls Voice into its secret new messaging solution – a once-size-fits-all combination of the best of Gmail, Hangouts, Voice, and Keep that we’ve been anticipating for years now. Maybe Voice will find a new home as a built in component of a broader Android-based messaging platform. Or maybe it’ll stay on its own, retaining its reputation as a handy service for geeks who don’t mind beta-type bugs, the company gradually tacking on a feature a year just to stay current with any would-be competitor.
Of those possibilities, the more ambitious seem the most likely to me. Google’s interest in Android goes hand-in-hand with developing exactly the kind of features that Voice offers, so it only makes sense for the company to continue improving the service going forward. Whether Google and its partners will be successful in building a true alternative to traditional mobile phone service is an open question, particularly considering the complexities brought about by the company’s recent forays into infrastructure.
But for now, that’s not really what I’m interested in. I’m interested in seeing a company rescue a formerly futuristic product from stagnation. I’m hopeful for some fragment of the Google of old, with it’s devil-may-care attitude toward traditional communications companies, coming to the rescue with a product that really breaks the old model of calling and texting.
Mostly, though, I’m just interested in prompt and reliable voice and text messages, low-latency voice calls, and the ability to send and receive a picture message now and then. That’s not too much to ask from one of the world’s leading communication providers, and one of the architects of our mobile-communications future.
… Is it?
If you use Google Voice, sound off below on the issues you’ve encountered. If you don’t use Google Voice, leave a comment letting us know why. And if you want to know what other Pocketnow readers are saying about the service, drop by our Forums and join the conversation.