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Google Voice now open to all in the U.S.

Google Voice--the call-management/answering-machine/Internet-dialing service that Google launched as a closed preview in March 2009, about two years after buying a service then called GrandCentral--is now open for anybody in the United States to try.


(Google's blog post originally led some to think the rest of the world could join in. Not so. Sorry, rest of the world.)

For the uninitiated, Google Voice is a free Web service that does a number of interesting things. You can get a new phone number from any of the area codes Google offers--requesting numbers spelling out a given phrase, if you wish. Then you can use that by itself to make free phone calls in the U.S. and Canada and cheap calls to elsewhere, or you can link other numbers to it and begin using Google Voice as your personal operator.

You can give the new Google Voice number to friends, then have their calls forwarded to whatever other line is most convenient--or set up rules governing whose calls get sent to which phones. You can make calls "from" that number through any other line you've associated with the account. And on mobile phones, you can have Google Voice's smart, non-irritating voicemail replace whatever last-century service your carrier offers.

Google's voicemail not only brings Gmail-style simplicity, it can also automatically transcribe messages. But when I forwarded my work line to Google Voice while now-completed newsroom renovations exiled me from my desk, these transcriptions were often unintentionally hilarious.

For instance, Google transcribed the name of Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice as "Benefits Morris" every time. I eventually suggested to her that, given the impossibility of changing Google's hive mind, it would be easier for everybody if she just changed her name instead.

On the go, Google Voice is most useful in Google's Android smartphone operating system and on Research In Motion's BlackBerry devices--thanks in part to Apple rejecting Google's iPhone application and some third-party Google Voice programs. (On the iPhone and Palm's Pre and Pixi, you can use a Web-based version of the service that leaves out some features.)

Google Voice's features, like those of other free Google services, do have privacy implications that you should consider carefully. Its privacy policy, for example, reports that "Google's servers also automatically collect telephony log information (including calling-party number, forwarding numbers, time and date of calls, duration of calls, SMS routing information, and types of calls)."

Privacy worries and funny transcriptions notwithstanding, though, most Google Voice users seem quite pleased with the service. Have you tried it? What's your opinion?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  June 22, 2010; 2:09 PM ET
Categories:  Mobile , Telecom  
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As a long-time user, who started with GrandCentral, I have a few thoughts. There is no doubt GV is a great idea, & Google should be proud. But the devil is in the details, and there, inexplicably, GV falls short.

Most of the issues are *not* in the core functionality, but rather in the web interface. You would think Google, of all people, would know how to make straightforward, bulletproof webapps. But in many simple things, it falls short.

Cut and paste in a business phone with some letters, such as advertisers love [888 CARWASH, etc.], and it fails. You can't label a stored number with anything but the default choices of Home, Work, Mobile etc. Searching through Contacts is iffy.

And the call log, an important feature for serious use, sometimes just fails to record an outgoing call. Wait, didn't I call him back yesterday???

The rest of GV is great, but I have seen no real improvements in the interface since its initial release. I keep hoping......

Posted by: j_oper | June 22, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

I. too have used GV since the GrandCentral days, and love it. There are only a few things I would change:

1) the call screening doesn't work well if you keep a security lock on your phone. You have to unlock your phone and press the button (1 to accept, 2 to send to voicemail, etc.). If they could make this voice-activated, I'd be able to use this feature.

2) The contacts connection with Google Apps is insufficient. I use Apps for my domain and have to periodically export my Apps contacts and import them into GV.

3) FAX reception. I'd pay for this. Yes, I know faxes suck, are old school, etc. I still need to receive them from time to time, and the ability to have them go to my GV number would eliminate a phone number for me.

Despite these shortcomings, I love GV. Love, love, love it. The voicemail-to-text service (imperfect though it is, as Rob points out) is still just freakin' insanely useful. I hope they keep developing the whole thing.

Posted by: pjgeraghty | June 22, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

I love, love, love Google Voice and will never give it up!

Posted by: magnuson | June 22, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

I have Google Voice and love (most of) it. The single best features allow you to really cut your cellphone bill. One of these is SMS texting for smartphones. Not only can you use it to avoid paying for a texting plan w/ your provider, but you can text from your computer (a lot faster than from the phone). I also turn on the forward to my office phone when I'm there and so avoid using mobile minutes when friends call the Google # and I answer through my office line. Finally, one can use the voicemail (either transcribed or as an audio file) without using up mobile minutes either. Probably saves me $30/mo. through a simplified plan.

Posted by: dblevin | June 22, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Rob, when the YouTube automatic transcription first premiered, I tried for two days to get it to work without success.

The ostensible reason is poor audio source. I was working from top-grade pro videotape. This would be a godsend for documentary filmmakers, whose problem is miles and miles of tape logging. I think that the 150 language translations is genius and would extend any media reach worldwide. I am not worried about the hilarious unintended translations, I can't get it to work at all!

Another great use is field journalists calling in the article. I expect the problems to be worked out. I say kudos to Michael Robertson's funding of the research.

Posted by: tombarger | June 22, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

I have been using this for about a year, a most handy tool. One of my favorite uses is receiving a voice mail during a meeting or conference call. I can usually decipher the transcription enough to know if I need to respond immediately or simply send an email reply for quick questions.

Posted by: apa67 | June 22, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse

Eventually, someone will link voice recognition and adware to push through relevant ads to those who speak on the phone through the internet. Remember just after 9/11 how the government always spoke cryptically about terrorist "chatter"?

Today, that same technology can be used in conjunction with internet voice communications to pop up ads as people speak.

If you say "paint the house this weekend" then an ad for house paint pops up. If you say "Pink Floyd" then music sites push ads to you. It's really a logical extension of returning ads with search results and ads tailored to email vocablulary. Who will get there first?

Posted by: blasmaic | June 22, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

I've been a GV user since the GrandCentral days, too. Absolutely love the service, though I share many of the minor complaints expressed above.

But I have a nagging worry: how does GV hold up in a disaster scenario? The "legacy" brick-and-mortar telcos have pretty bullet-proof disaster contingency plans. I'm supremely confident that if there's an earthquake in (say) California, Verizon will still be able to route calls to me here in DC. But will GV be that robust under disaster conditions? Or will I still have to give my friends/family all of my "real" cell/landline numbers in addition to my "virtual" GV number, so that they have alternatives emergency contact numbers in case GV is disrupted?

Posted by: kcx7 | June 22, 2010 7:42 PM | Report abuse

I absolutely love it... even with its flaws.
My cell phone has an area code from the one I currently live in and can't change it, GV allows me to have a number in a different area code and have it forwarded.
Things I DO like:
1. As mentioned by dblevin, typing texts from (and receiving) the computer is a lot easier.
2. The call screening feater for callers I don't know is great. I can have unknown callers say their name before my phone starts ringing. When I pick up, it asks me if I want to a) answer b) hang up (great for ex girlfriends!) c) send to voice mail d) send to voice mail and LISTEN IN on the voice mail just like on a home phone.
3. NO CALLING CARDS FOR INTERNATIONAL CALLS! I call China for business a lot and it's a very competitive 2 cents per minute. I can call it straight from my cell phone (or any other phone) without thinking about it.
4. Ability to go online, call someone from any phone I have saved. It rings to the saved phone, when I pick up, it rings to the phone I'm calling.
Some of the things I DON'T like:
1. Inability to quickly change forwarding phones on the Android App.
2. Oversimplifying of even advanced settings. Google strives for simplicity, but sometimes that inhibits the ability to customize. (i.e. the customizable ring schedule for all the phone is not as customizable as I would like)
3. Fax functionality.
4. If I'm overseas it would be great if I could have it forward to that phone even if I am paying the google international charges. I wouldn't mind.

Posted by: EvanTH | June 22, 2010 8:03 PM | Report abuse

Hi Rob. I've been a fan and user of Grand Central since beta. I love the service and couldn't imagine being without it (but please don't charge for it Google!).

Posted by: thehighwaygirl | June 22, 2010 10:37 PM | Report abuse

It's a great service. I've heard they will be allowing calling from within Google Talk soon which would be nice. For a computer oriented service to require an actual phone to make a call seems rather silly. There are times when I'm already working at my computer and it would be nice to be able to make a call using my headset and mic as I can with Skype.

Posted by: scarper86 | June 22, 2010 10:48 PM | Report abuse

Would be great if number portability to Google Voice were an option . . .

Posted by: dc-nater | June 22, 2010 11:08 PM | Report abuse

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