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.

SoftBank is my new favorite company in the world

how can you not love a company that not only has a talking dog, and an American woman screaming something aggressive and samurai-ly in Japanese, but also has Quentin Tarrantino doing some crazy ass shit?

that not convince you?  maybe these two ads with brad pitt co-starring as a sumo wrestler’s personal assistant may help:

and what’s up with the soundtrack in the brad pitt ones?  i feel like i’m watching deadwood again.  except in japanese.  and totally not deadwood.  and in japanese.