Google Voice: It’s the End of the Phone As We Know It

[Update 12:00 pm 3/20/09: We were swamped with hundreds of e-mails in response to our offer of 100 free Google Voice beta accounts this morning. Thanks everyone! We’ll be in touch with the winners as soon as possible with details about their new accounts.]

Brace for impact, again. Google is about to change the way you think about telephones.

The information giant has a pattern of setting its sights on an existing technology, moving in with overwhelming software-engineering force, and upending all of our old expectations. We didn’t know we needed ads alongside our search results, and Google turned keyword-based advertising into a multi-billion-dollar industry. We all thought e-mail was something we could only access and manage using desktop programs like Outlook, then along came Gmail. We thought we had to go to libraries to find out-of-print books, then Google went and created Google Book Search. We imagined cell phone platforms would always be controlled by a few elite carriers and handset makers, then Google started Android.

To be clear about it, Google didn’t invent keyword-based advertising, Web mail, book scanning, or open-source software. It just figured out how to apply such technologies more cleverly and pervasively than anyone else. And that’s what it has done once more with Google Voice—the renovated version of Grand Central, the phone-number-unification service it bought in 2007.

Grand Central was a startup that allowed users to sign up for a single phone number for life. A call to that number would automatically ring through to any or all of the other phones the user designated, meaning they no longer had to give their acquaintances separate home, office, and mobile numbers. Google paid somewhere north of $50 million for the technology, then spent more than a year and a half rebuilding it to work with its own infrastructure. Starting March 12, Google upgraded old Grand Central’s existing users to Google Voice accounts, and started inviting in a few beta testers. It plans to open up the free service to anyone in the U.S. starting “soon“—in a few weeks, by all accounts.

The Google Voice InboxI’ve been testing Google Voice for the last couple of days, and I’m impressed. I think the service will mark a kind of tipping point in public perceptions of telephony. Before this, it was still possible to think of the phone system as something predating the Internet and therefore distinct from it, surrounded by its own set of customs and usage patterns. After this, we’ll think of phone calls more as if they were audio e-mails—finding their way through the uber-network to their intended recipients wherever those recipients may be located, and leaving a digital record that can be stored, searched, and manipulated on the Web.

There are a lot of features to Google Voice, which makes the overall concept a bit hard to explain, as I’ve realized over the past couple of days as I’ve talked with friends and colleagues about it. So I’ll try to simplify things. You start by signing up for a new phone number in your area code of choice. Google provides a search page where you can look for numbers that spell out mnemonics like “617-IM2-COOL.” In practice, there aren’t that many numbers available, so you might have to search for a while before you find one that spells out something that appeals to you, and that won’t embarrass you five or 10 years from now. (Google could do a better job explaining the number selection process—and it wouldn’t hurt if they showed a picture of a phone keyboard, to remind you of what letters go with what numbers.)

In the same way that an e-mail address doesn’t correspond to a single computer, your Google Voice number doesn’t correspond to any single phone. Indeed, that’s the beauty of the whole system. So once you’ve picked your number, the first thing to decide is which actual phones should ring when someone calls it. You can tell Google Voice to route calls to your office phone, your home land line, your mobile phone, your vacation rental, your Aunt Minnie’s house where you’re staying for the weekend, or all of the above.

The next big decision is about how Google Voice should handle voicemail messages, for those times you can’t answer or don’t want to. As soon as someone leaves a message, it goes into your Google Voice inbox, which you can access by calling the service or by directing the browser on your computer or your mobile phone to the Google Voice website.

If you like, you can simply let messages pile up in your inbox, and check them once in a while by calling in or visiting on the Web. Or you if you want to know about new messages right away, you can set Google Voice to notify you via e-mail or SMS text message.

Now here’s the really cool part. Rather than just notifying you that you got a voicemail the way your cell phone does, Google Voice can—if you choose—send you a text transcription of the message itself. Transcriptions are created automatically using speech recognition software, so they aren’t as accurate as one might like, but they … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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