lemonade

Google Voice: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

google voice is one of the latest in beta systems and software and may be the harbinger of goog’s plan to take over your phone.  the skinny is that google voice is sort of a layer on top of your normal phone service.  it’s a free system that offers voice mail (that transcribes your voice messages to text), free text messaging, and a long-distance plan (though i haven’t compared this to what my current rate is with at&t since i’ve got so much rollover i probably won’t be paying for a phone call until my contract expires).  all this with notifications that can get sent to your inbox when you have a message or text, being able to sync multiple phone numbers to a single google voice number (so, for example, all the phones in your family plan could ring at one google voice number — you know, like in the olden days when people had multiple telephones that had actual wires preventing the phones from leaving a 5 foot area, and all the phones in the house rang at the same time when someone called), and add to that the ability to pick our phone number (with a search function that lets you come up with a witty 3-7 character combination which you can use (or not) to remember your phone number (or give it to others).  as an example, my phone number is 987-0BSG).  there’s also some other added bonuses that i’ll get to…

the good

there’s a few things that voice does that are completely awesome.  even when the voice recognition software flubs some words (and admittedly, they censor the four-letter variety), it’s still nice to  read your message when you don’t want to call into your voice mail.  just being able to check your messages in a browser without picking up the phone at all is pretty awesome, and, i imagine, would be especially useful for someone working in an office that doesn’t allow personal calls.

also, though i haven’t played with it myself, the ability to add multiple phone numbers to your google voice number is pretty sweet.  you can have your business and personal called forwarded to the same phone, multiple family members getting ringed at the same time (as in the aforementioned family plan option) or both your cell and your landline go to your google phone number, so you can be sure to get the call whether your out or not, and not cause the person trying to get in touch with you the hassle of having to call your cell if your land line gets an RNA (that’s telco-speak for “ring, no answer”).

also bonus is the ability to create groups and import contacts and then customize the greeting they get when they hit your voice mail depending on what group they are in.  you can have everyone in your contacts get one message and everyone else another message.  or your friends and family get one message while your clients and work acquaintances get a more professional greeting.  i keep meaning to set this one up.

free texting is cool also, as is the ability to send a text message from your computer.  typing on a real keyboard is a lot easier than using a numpad or qwerty keyboard.  now, with this, certain restrictions apply — such as a text messaging plan with your provider.  because while you sending texts through google voice is free, that doesn’t mean that incoming texts are also free — at least, not if you don’t have free text messaging as part of your carrier plan.  because, while i can tell google voice not to text me when i get a voice message (see this revisited later), i can’t tell it to not text me when i get a text message (and why would i? seems kind of pointless, really).

also, with the google chrome extension for voice, when i highlight a telephone number on the screen, it bring up a little box that allows me to call that number through google voice.

since google voice is an added layer on top of your existing service, you can make a call through google voice one of 3 ways.  1 — you can use the chrome extension (if there isn’t a firefox equivalent, i’d be surprised).  in this case you select the phone you want it to ring (in my case, just my cell phone), and then google voice will connect your call like an old-fashioned operator, calling you and the party you are trying to connect to automatically.  2 — you can do the same operation through the google voice page.  again, just tell it what number you want to call and they call you and connect you to where you’re trying to go.  3 — you can call google voice (your own number) log in with your pin, and then select the option from the voice prompt to make a call.  the in-browser support with the chrome extension is really the only one that’s not clunky as all hell.

you can also use google voice’s built-in call screening system, forcing all callers who aren’t in your contact list to announce who they are and you have the choice to accept or deny the call.  if you deny the call, they get routed to voice mail.  not the most personable situation, but i suppose it would work well for people who get slammed by telemarketers (i solve this problem by just not answering calls from numbers i don’t recognize).

the bad

so, what should be pretty obvious at this point is that the way this would work 100xs better is if there was no added layer — google voice 100% integrated into your phone as your actual provider rather than piggybacking on top of what you’ve already got.  as it stands, the system feels a little jury-rigged, especially with the caller id situation (outgoing calls from your phone? your existing phone number on caller id.  outgoing calls from the google voice system?  your voice phone number.  text messaging?  either or, depending on a setting you can modify.  incoming caller ids — from what i’ve seen — just come from Google Voice.  text messages come from Google Voice but have the benefit of showing the texter’s name at the beginning of the message (or, presumably, their phone number if they aren’t in your contacts — i haven’t gotten a text from someone not in my contacts)).

the whole thing just begs to have google take over every damn thing, and you know that has to be on their minds as well.

also: i mentioned before that you can have voice text you when you get a voice message.  that’s the thing — that’s the only notification you get on your phone.  a text message.  other than the missed call and an assumption (which is what i’m going off of these days).  for those of us who pay per text message and don’t want to rack up $0.10 just for a note saying you got voicemail, you’ll have to actually use your brain as opposed to having a little icon on your phone that tells you you have a message waiting.

i imagine someone with a smartphone and a google voice app would probably experience something a lot smoother.  a blackberry or an iphone or an android or nexus one phone probably has a voice interface integrated (and if not, i’m sure it’s on the way) so the experience can be a lot more sophisticated and seamless.  the system lends itself well to data plans because of the text messaging thing (i know i’m in the dark ages on that one), the email notifications and the fact that google voice is a web-based application.  while it’s not smartphone-exclusive, it’s pretty close; us that use flip phones with no data plan are kind of in the lurch.

the ugly

let me say one thing about the google voice extension for chrome: just because some text i highlighted might have some numerical characters in it, DOESN’T MEAN IT’S A PHONE NUMBER I WANT TO CALL.  seriously, this is one of the most obnoxious things i’ve seen.  i’ve had pretty much anything with more than 6 digits (including long alphanumeric strings like serial numbers, API keys, or other registration-type keys) bring a google voice pop-up.  the idea is similar to that of the skype plugin for firefox, where every phone number becomes a way you can call someone straight from the web page, but the chrome extension for voice is much less discriminating in what it decides a phone number qualifies as.  that said, it is pretty handy when it actually is a phone number i do want to call, but obnoxious the 99 other times in 100 that i don’t and it’s not.

also ugly?  picking your phone number.  because you can keep your current number (with a more limited feature set that does not include the voice-to-text voicemail inbox), or you can pick a number; you cannot (at the time of this writing) say “give me a number.”  if you want a new number,  you are forced to pick one.  think 987-0BSG is kind of lame?  you try thinking of something more interesting — but, before you start, i’ll tell you that geek, g33k, leet, l33t, and l337 are already taken.  and, unfortunately, your phone number can’t be STARBUCK.  nor was anything like DESIGN, ARCANE, PALETTE, or anything else available.  still think you can do better than BSG?  9870 isn’t looking so bad anymore, is it?  the fact that you can’t give up and say “just give me a random number” is ridiculous.  i get that the numbers that are available are limited and that new area codes are being created all the time to accommodate all the new phone numbers (to which google voice is only adding to the problem), but come on, just pick a damn number for me, okay?

when you call your number to check for messages, you don’t get an alert that says “you have no new messages.”  the system only tells you when you have new messages, and, as far as i could tell through it’s badly designed prompts, you can’t listen to old messages, either.  this means that if someone called you, you read the badly translated text, and called in to hear the recording, you would a) not know there was a message waiting and b) good luck finding the thing at all.  sure you can stream the recording from the web app, but, again, those of us not on smartphones might find that inconvenient.  if you do have an unread message you get the “you have one new message” prompt, so why not the standard “you have no new messages”?  i mean, seriously, wtf?

we know where this is going

there’s a pretty obvious conclusion to google voice.  like everything else, it’s still in beta, and fairly early beta based on the limited invites and functionality.  even so, with the development going into the chrome os, the new nexus one and google’s overall emergence into the mobile market with android, it’s pretty obvious where this is going — google is going to jump into the mobile market.  how that’s going to work, i have no idea.  right now, it’s obvious they’re offering up google voice as another free thing to join the ranks of all their other free things, but if they become a carrier, things will no longer be free.  what that means, exactly, i have no idea.  will a google voice carrier be a voice-over-IP-based system?  will they lease access from a larger carrier, say,  t-mobile or verizon?  and if so, how will that affect the consumer costs, since it’s obvious that a lot of the google appeal is in their “free shit is cool” factor (which may go completely out the door when chrome os-powered devices start hitting the market next year)?

and what about integration?  when does gtalk, wave, google apps, and google voice merge into an all-in-one teleconferencing/communications platform that can be marketed to individuals, small businesses, and large corporations?  because you know that has to be coming as well, but, as yet, nothing has been released yet that adequately integrates any of these standalone apps, let alone all of them.  it’s what everyone wants, and it will be the one thing that will add the most value to all of their products as pieces of a whole, and as part of a suite of applications.  when google finally does merge and natively integrate all of their flagship products, they will be in the best possible position to take on the corporate market.  which is exactly where they want to be.

don’t be evil my pale buttocks.

learning to do less

i just got done reading Seth Godin’s manifesto, Do Less.  i’ve actually been reading quite a bit of Seth Godin recently, having decided that his blog is pretty cool.  Seth Godin is a smart guy.  he’s not saying anything revolutionary — in fact, a lot of what he blogs about should be common sense.  but it’s not.  Seth is really good at calling attention to the things that we need to hear and present them in a way that makes it easy to hear them.  in my opinion, that’s what makes him a big deal.

the basic premise of Do Less goes right inline with something erin and i have discovered on our own: when the product we want to make is supposed to be a creative and limited, one-of-a-kind thing — something we like to think of as a work of art — you can’t take on every project you get.  this is tough.  a lot of web designers out there, including the design firm that we did freelance stuff for over a year ago, just has a “take all comers” approach.  they will scale a plan to fit any need and do it quickly and — presumably — well.  but if you take everything you’re offered, you can’t produce anything that’s exceptional.  because a lot of people don’t want exceptional.  there are some people who want budget.  there are some people who want functional.  there are some people who want fast.  and you can do these things, but they do not produce an environment conducive to doing something extraordinary, and, for the most part, these people aren’t looking for extraordinary anyway — they want something that looks like the stuff they look at every day: clean, professional, businesslike.

and we started out this way — taking what we could get, and working for cheap, because we needed to start building up our business and portfolio.  but we knew that wasn’t the type of business we wanted to run.  as we grew, we were torn with the desire to stay true and fair to our past clients, and the need to raise our rates, focus on our niche and unique talents, and brush off projects that would not benefit us in the long run.

it feels counter-intuitive to decline projects, even when they are under your budget.  as a consumer, we’re always looking to make the most out of our buck, and as providers, we feel inclined to respect that wish for value.  but quality is worth something.  Seth opens Do Less with an anecdote about a real estate investor.  This investor does just one new investment a year.  The reason?

In any given year, we look at a thousand deals. One hundred of them are pretty good. One is great.

I don’t think we’ll be at the point where we can do just one gig a year and spend the rest of the year making art, and writing, and working on projects that are self-gratifying, and working on being great parents to our kids.  it sounds great, i just don’t think it will happen. but we probably did more than 100 projects our first year — for ourselves, and freelancing for another company — and we still brought in less money (with a part-time second job I carried at Whole Foods) than the $40k/year job I left to do design full-time from home.  a lot less.  and sure, we could have continued working as freelancers, getting paid $20 a page for a slew of subpar projects that really didn’t interest  us all that much for someone else who didn’t care about individual designers’ talents as long as they got the job done quickly — we could have learned to do more, faster, using as many shortcuts as possible and not spending too much time on the process, but that went against the whole reason for doing this.  it wouldn’t be something we loved, it would be just another job.  and i think that doing something you love shows in your product.

hareandtortoiseit’s interesting that i decided to read Do Less at precisely the same time that we started having conversations about the types of projects we take on and how we want to do business now and moving forward versus how we used to do business.  we were already on the do less path, because what Seth says is true — you can’t be everything.  you can’t have quality and speed, you can’t have cheap and have time left over to spend on side projects or with the fam.  we’re learning this, learning to go against what feels natural.  if you’re in the business to sell the most thneeds as quickly as possible, then bigger, faster, better, more is a good mantra.  but that’s never been something that’s meshed very well in my brain.  when you’re learning to Do Less, you need to think more like Turtle: slow and steady wins the race.

fix the music biz by taking cues from the porn industry

playboymp3some ideas occurred to me after my recent post about the music industry, and then erin said something that i thought was not only genius, but perfectly summed up the kind of thinking that needs to happen to save the music business: if you want to figure out what people will pay for online, look at the porn industry.

now, i’m not condoning looking at porn; in general, i consider porn addiction to be similar to smoking — a seemingly innocuous habit that is just as difficult to quit, and causes numerous side-effects, mostly invisible or under-the-surface (only instead of being something somewhat quantifiable and medically recognized like second-hand smoke, the side effects are sexism, objectification, and a generally unbalanced gender appreciation — all social issues, and therefore less tangible).  in this case, however, it’s a perfect analogy.  there’s plenty of porn you can get for free.  you only need to google, turn your safe search filter off, and bam! porn.  i’ll probably get some porn spam just by saying the word porn in this post.  and yet, the online adult entertainment industry (by which i mean: porn) is one of the largest, most lucrative, and fastest growing online business industries.  it makes tons of money every day.  so much so, that no one can really, accurately tabulate exactly how much.  these guys aren’t worried about their stuff being stolen, and they aren’t telling porn addicts to please pay first before downloading their stuff.  they know that they’ve got the goods, and the people will come back for them.

let’s take a look at what’s happened to porn in the last 10 years or so. for this,  i’m gonna briefly pull out my old person voice: you kids may not remember this, but once upon a time, porn came in magazines, printed on paper, and the only way to get it was to a) creep into a bookstore and ask for the stuff behind the counter looking guilty, b) go to a sleazy corner magazine and/or liquor store and hand the trashy magazine to the clerk, looking guilty, c) slink into your parents’ closet and steal your dad’s collection, or d) go to the same sleazy corner liquor store and shove the dirty magazine under your shirt and take off — chances are, you’d only get away with that one once or twice before you’d have to switch liquor stores.  there was sort of a fifth option, too, which was find one of the newsstands that sold the cheap, $1 newsprint rags that was 80% personal ads (you know, like the craigslist adult personals, before there was such a thing) and 20% black & white, amateur-ish photos often with stars over the goods.  this was the easiest in terms of the guilt factor, but the least rewarding in terms of getting your rocks off.

when the internet exploded, the porn biz was probably one of the first industries to make the transition online.  as they did, the physical magazines took a nosedive.  why suffer the guilt and shame of having to ask a dweeby, greasy-haired nerdboy at Borders for the latest issue of Hustler when you could get the same stuff at home, and you don’t even have to get dressed?  now, it’s second nature; does anyone buy Playboy magazines anymore?  porn and the internet are as natural as peanut butter and jelly.

so let’s go back to music, how does porn apply to music?

well, one thing i was thinking about, that’s been discussed in various forms around the ‘net — and is being done in various forms already — is the idea of a paid membership site.  sort of like a netflix for music.  here’s one way it’s being used: Zune Pass lets you access thousands of songs, download unlimited music for $14.95/month (or something to that effect).  you get to keep 10 of those a month, the rest — if your membership ever expired — die or expire or self-destruct or something like that.  it’s an interesting idea.  there’s the new neil young archive, which — when it is completed — will essentially allow access to an expansive online archive of everything he’s ever recorded ever (for a hugely exorbitant price).

here’s my $0.02: think of your favorite record label — what if they put everything they ever recorded online.  everything.  including live concert videos (either professionally produced or bootlegged and uploaded by fans), b-sides, outtakes, interviews, some new, exclusive content, etc, etc, etc.  you pay a monthly fee, say $10/month, get unlimited, unrestricted access to download decent (but not perfect) quality mp3s (say 128 or 192kbps), and access to watch and listen to all the extra bonus stuff.  just for kicks, let’s suggest the possibility, too, that members get other bonuses, too, like discounts on merchandise and CDs.  now, let’s widen the perspective here: what if a bunch of indie labels went in on this together?  you get unlimited downloads of thousands of great songs, old and new, a huge online music library at your fingertips, most of which would never hit the radio, plus access to exclusive online content and goodies and discounts on real merchandise you can wear or pop into your CD player, for one low price a month.  wouldn’t you pay for that?

there would be the argument that the labels would lose money doing something like this, but i don’t think so.  with the kind of downloading that’s going on already, i think it would instead legitimize the downloading that’s already being done, putting cash back into the pockets of the people who made the music happen.  not only that, but kickbacks on actual merch would put a demand back on physical goods and possibly encourage some extra sales of disks and clothing.  the key is that the monthly cost would need to be low enough that the extras balanced out the fact that the people you’re targeting can get half of this stuff for free.

i’m not a marketing genius.  i’m not in the music business, i don’t know what it’s like to run a music label.  this is just vaporware; pipe dreams of things i wish would come true.  but there is something i do get — i get the tech.  this idea is both very possible and already being done in other industries.  it would be easier to do this with music than it would for, say, movies or television, like what netflix and hulu are doing, because the files are so much smaller and easier to stream and download.

the only way to stay ahead of the game is to think like a web 2.0 startup — use existing technologies to market and make available your product in a format that your audience is already familiar with.  people aren’t going to stop downloading just because you tell them to.  there needs to be an alternative that actually entices people to pay.  as any parent should know, negative reinforcement doesn’t work very well.  instead, reward your fans for good behavior, and they will come back to you with their wallets open.

fantasize about that.