Google Voice: Are you missing out on coolest features?

Google and Sprint didn't exactly cover themselves in glory last week. The much hyped integration of Google Voice and Sprint fell flat on its face, embarrassing both companies and irritating an unknown number of users who simply couldn't make the two systems talk to each other.

By last weekend, some of the problems had apparently eased, but it's still not clear what really went wrong and how long it will take to resolve. I don't want to dwell on the issue, except to say that if you're a Sprint customer wanting to use Google Voice, hold your horses and see what happens. The botched rollout aside, Google Voice has a lot to offer. To get a sense of why the service is still worth a look, just ask Tiffany Garvey, who runs a small graphics design business in San Francisco. "It makes my business seem bigger and more professional. And it doesn't cost me anything," says Garvey, who started using Google Voice a few months ago.

I'll explain how Garvey, who runs Abstract Beauty Designs, uses the service in a bit, but I want to note that Google voice is a service worth considering whether you run a business or not. It offers convenience, privacy and some great savings on domestic and international calling.

What is Google Voice?

In case you're not clear on the concept, Google has not become a carrier. Google Voice is a complement to existing wireless or wired phone service; it doesn't replace it. At its simplest, Google Voice gives you an additional phone number that will ring up to six other phone lines. And you can use it to make free domestic phone calls; international calls are not free, but the rates are quite competitive with major American carriers. In fact, one of the attractions of the deal with Sprint is that the carrier's customers will have access to Google's international service at a significant savings.

Rather than try and list all of GV's many features, I'm going to highlight a few you might not know about -- and note some of the limitations I've come across.

Google Voice: 5 Truths Behind the Hype

You know the old joke; on the Internet no one knows you're a dog. Well, on Google Voice, no one has to know you're a one-man (or woman) band. Garvey, for example, separates business and personal calls by putting only her Google phone number on her Web site. Calls initiated on her Google Voice number are marked that way, so she knows right away that's she getting a business call and if she chooses not to pick it up, the caller hears a business-oriented greeting. What's more, Google Voice let her build a widget in less than five minutes that allows visitors to her Web site to call her with just one click.

There's another advantage to having a separate number -- and that's privacy. You can use Google Voice as a virtual shield by only giving out your cell or landline number to family and friends and letting the rest of the world reach you on Google Voice. You can have a very anonymous greeting that doesn't, say, give away your gender, and take advantage of some fairly advanced call screening techniques.

You can for example, have the caller identify himself before being connected, or you can listen as he or she leaves a message and interrupt whenever you want.

Another cool feature lets you record incoming (but not outgoing) calls with the press of a button. Of course, that's illegal in some states, and Google automatically announces that a call is going to be recorded. You can also block a caller you dont want to hear from again. Once you do that, the banned party hears a much saying that the number is no longer in service. They won't even know you've blacklisted them.

Garvey says she likes to think of her laptop as the file cabinet that holds everything. She can download her voicemail (including recordings) and keep it in a GV folder, which makes it easy to keep, retrieve and track. Although Google touts its "transcription" feature, it turns out that it does a very poor job translating speech to text. The times I've tried it, the transcription was so garbled it was essentially useless.

That's probably because most speech recognition software needs to be trained to recognize your speech patterns, and Google Voice simply works on the fly. Dragon Dictate, which can be used as an app on an iPhone, is an exception to that rule, so maybe Google will figure it out in the future.

Here are three more features worth having:

  • You can set your preferences so that certain calls will ring only certain phones. If, for example, you want calls from your kids to go straight through to your cell phone, or your mother's calls to ring only on your home phone, you could make those specifications. You could even set certain callers to be routed directly into your voicemail.

  • With Google Voice, you receive SMS messages on your phones and in your Google Voice inbox, which means you can send SMS replies from your mobile phone or your computer. Google will send you an email when you get a text to your Google Voice account, so you'll save on those pesky SMS charges.

  • Instead of having to send out a conference number and access code to people calling in, you can now just ask them to call you at a preset time and you can conference them in as they call. It's a limited feature; you can only conference with four other people and there's no way to record the call.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

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Bill Snyder

CIO (US)
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