Should You Sign Up for Google Voice? Xconomy Readers Share Their Beta Experiences

Back in March, I wrote a column about Google Voice, the reincarnated version of a voicemail unification service that Google acquired from Grand Central back in 2007. The free service gives you a single phone number for life that isn’t tied to any particular land line or cellular device—instead, calls ring through to whichever phones you specify. Voicemails get stored online and (if you want) transcribed into text e-mails. In my column, I called Google Voice “the end of the phone as we know it,” since a Google Voice number resembles an e-mail address more than an old-fashioned phone line. It goes with you everywhere, can be managed entirely through the Web, and literally turns your voicemails into e-mails.

Google Voice was, and still is, in a private, invitation-only, beta testing phase. When I checked with Google early last week, employees were still saying the service will be available to the general public “soon”—which is the same thing they were saying back in March. But the big day may be approaching. While rumors circulating last week about the service’s impending launch turned out to be false, Google Voice product manager Craig Walker did state, via his public Twitter stream, that “We’re cranking 24/7 to get there.”

In conjunction with my March column, Google kindly provided 100 Google Voice beta invitations for Xconomy readers—and not surprisingly, all of the invitations were snapped up within an hour after we publicized the offer. So in anticipation of the public launch of Google Voice, I decided to ping the lucky 100 beta account winners last Friday to find out how the service has been working out for them, and whether they’d recommend it to others.

The readers who’ve written back so far have been lavish with their praise—at least, the ones who have actually been using their accounts. Several have admitted that they never signed up, or that they signed up but found that Google Voice wasn’t what they expected, or that, as one reader put it, “I would have liked to [use it] but then work (life?) got in the way.” More about the potentially high barriers to adoption below.

Readers who’ve used Google Voice seem to like the way it lets them give out a single phone number to everyone, rather than separate office, home, and cell numbers. Several readers said they like the (somewhat sneaky) feature that lets users listen to callers as they’re leaving a voicemail, and break in if they want to talk to that person directly. And if there’s one feature everyone loves, it’s the automatic transcription of voicemail messages into e-mails—a Google invention that wasn’t part of the original Grand Central service. While Google’s speech-to-text technology is far from perfect, readers say it’s good enough to get the gist of a message across, and that it saves them from the universally dreaded task of actually listening to all their voicemail. (You can browse readers’ detailed comments below.) Xconomy’s CEO and editor-in-chief, Bob Buderi, has been using Google Voice since March, and he also cites voicemail transcription as his favorite feature.

Readers report surprisingly few technical glitches or other difficulties using Google Voice. The problems they do cite tend to be ones that are baked into the service’s design. Most people said it’s too much trouble to make outgoing calls through Google Voice, since users must either call their own Google Voice number first, or go to the Google Voice website. Which leads to another frequent complaint—the caller ID problem. Unless you place all your outgoing calls through Google Voice, then the people you call will see the number of the device you’re calling from, rather than your Google Voice number. That means you have to train everyone not to store your device’s number in their contact list, but to call you back on your Google Voice number instead. That’s plain confusing for everyone.

Asked to say whether they’d recommend Google Voice to a friend or a family member, quite a few readers said “Yes, but…” The “but” was that they’d only recommend it to people who are technically adept—“power users,” in one reader’s phrase. As another reader put it: “The person who is going to use [it] needs to be a bit of a techie (not super technical, but my wife who is not technical would get lost in the concept)…[there are] lots of configuration options which I enjoyed learning and setting up.”

How much have Xconomy readers actually used their Google Voice accounts, in the end? That varies. Some say they’ve made their Google Voice number into their main phone number, and that they use the service extensively every day. Others say they’re still mainly dabbling, or haven’t yet figured out how to make the best use of the service.

I’ve had my own Google Voice account since writing my review in mid-March, but like several of Xconomy’s readers, I haven’t used it much. The reason is the same one some readers cite: The high switching costs. I’ve changed residential and office phone numbers several times in the last few years, and I dread having to inconvenience everyone in my life yet again by making them switch to my Google Voice number. Then there’s the hassle of printing new business cards and updating my account records with everyone from Amazon to the electric company.

I realize that this is a paradox of sorts. In the long run, the great thing about your Google Voice number is that it’s the last new one you’ll ever have to give out (for as long as Google exists, anyway). Still, there’s that last hump to get over. Since adopting Google Voice is optional—unlike switching your home land line number when you move between area codes, for example—I think the switching hassle, together with the power-user requirement, may cause many potential users to balk.

But there’s some chance that the number-switching problem will go away by the time Google Voice goes public. TechCrunch reported last week, based on information from an unnamed source inside Google, that the company is working on “number portability” for Google Voice—meaning that when you sign up for the service, you could reassign your existing cell or home number to your Google Voice account, rather than getting a brand-new number from Google. That would significantly reduce the switching costs that go with adopting Google Voice. (But it wouldn’t fix the outgoing-call and caller ID problems, except for the times when you’re calling from the device that uses your Google Voice number.)

So—if you’ve been hearing about Google Voice and wondering whether you should sign up for it when it becomes available to the general public, you may want to glance through the following comments from the Xconomy Google Voice account winners. Needless to say, this is not a scientific survey. There’s a lot of self-selection going on here, since by definition, all of these comments are from people who immediately responded to Xconomy’s free Google Voice account offer back in March. And the people who dislike Google Voice probably aren’t as keen to reply to my feedback request as its fans and evangelists.

(A big thank you, by the way, to everyone who wrote in. Many of you said it would okay to quote you by name, but I decided not to use names with these comments, since quite a few people asked to remain anonymous. I’ve edited the comments for clarity.)

How much have you used your Google Voice account?

“I have used it a little thus far. Since I am a remote person my mobile/office phone is the same. However that will be changing by this summer and the convenience of one number is ideal.”

“About once a week.”

“I use my Google Voice account almost every day.”


“I have not found a good way to utilize the technology.”

“It’s interesting. I will use it eventually. I am not an early adopter type generally. At this point I like to play with it.”

“I use it as my primary number. In fact, I actually changed my AT&T number so that it wouldn’t be called directly from people who still used my old number. I have never given my *actual* AT&T number to anybody.”

“I have not used it as much as I had expected. Most of my friends have not switched over to my new number since my cell phone number is still good. I have used it for new friends and placed it on my resume as my POC.”

“Occasionally. Whenever people call me on that number instead of my old number.”

“I have started handing out my [Google Voice number] instead of cell phone. So I use it 10-30 minutes a day.

“I did sign up but I have not made any use of it, unfortunately. I would have liked to but then work (life?) got in the way. I do plan to get back to it and exploring it further.”

Does Google Voice do what you expected?

“Absolutely. There may even be more functionality I haven’t worked with yet.”

“Yes, and more.”

“What I use it for and what i like:
* Routing all my text messages through one account and then to my cell phone
* I usually now only give out my Google Voice number, it’s on my business cards for work and a ton of other places. I love being able to screen calls and track who’s called online.
* I use a Google Voice app on my android phone (I have a G2 that I got at Google IO and it works ok with the phone).”

“It has far exceeded my expectations. One of cool features is the ability to set up multiple groups and voice mails for each different group. I particularly thought that I would get a lot of use from the voicemails. However with my phone ringing in all three locations —Home, Work, and Cell—I always have a chance to answer the phone. So I have not seen a lot of activity on the voicemail side. But hey, isn’t that the idea to be more accessible (if you want). You can just as easily not be accessible and allow much to go to voicemail. I think the listen in feature is very very cool. There are times when I don’t want to talk but am interested in the voicemail right now.”

“I did not really understand what it was until I had the opportunity to play with it, and then I did not really have use for it. I guess that I was thinking that it would be more like Skype. We use a virtual PBX at our company and Google Voice would probably be a better option for that application, but the virtual PBX numbers and system are already established at this point.”

“Oh yes. And more. It’s really rethought the way I’ve used my telephone. I can block, redirect, turn on, off, conference without going though my telco at all. It’s incredible.”

“Overall, I am happy with the service. I have not used the outbound calling feature, but the other features are nice. I especially like the message transcription service. Over the course of my use of the service, the accuracy has improved, but it is still not perfect. It has been enough for me to get the general idea of the message, which has allowed me to determine if I need to step out of a meeting, etc. to call the person back (or if it can wait).”

“Yes, it works well. The transcription needs a bit of work but is very useful. I hate listening to voicemail so it’s really a godsend.”

“Yes. It works great. The voice quality is very good. The transcription of messages is good. Both the web and mobile web interface are very nice.”

What complications or difficulties have you experienced?

“Not one.”

“At first, calls were Caller ID’ed as ‘Unavailable,’ but after changing some settings, it works just fine.”

“I use it extensively at work, I love the dialing feature. And it is great to build a database of those who call. The one difficulty is that when I go home it is not convenient to use the Web app to dial out. The time that it takes to go to the website, select the person, then have it dial you back gets pretty annoying. I was psyched when the GV Mobile app came out for the iPhone. Great app, but it too is still too time consuming when I want to call my wife or son.”

“Mostly problems regarding calling directly though the phone. One has to quickly learn to call from the Web page or the 3rd party google voice applications. The text message (406) number helps a lot.”

“When Google went down a few months ago, it played havoc with Google Voice. My wife called my number and actually got through to a stranger. This has got to NEVER happen again.”

“One feature I have yet to use is the outgoing calling feature. Since I don’t understand what the benefits are for me to take these extra steps to make any outgoing call, I haven’t tried it.”

“I haven’t tried the outgoing call feature. Seems like too much trouble, and in fact I forgot about it.”

“My friends/family are having difficulty switching from my old number to my new number.”

“None that I can think of.”

Would you recommend Google Voice to your friends or family? Why or why not?

“For the ones who would benefit from a single number.”

“Absolutely, it has saved me money and hassle having a new phone and contract just for business.”

“Absolutely with the caveat that the person who is going to use needs to be a bit of a techie (not super technical, but my wife who is not technical would get lost in the concept), lots of configuration options which I enjoyed learning and setting up. This has been by far one of the coolest applications I have seen. How many time have you had a phone die and you lost all of your numbers. With Google Voice, this is a thing of the past. And if you lose your phone, you can set up a temporary number and use your computer. Ultracool concept!”

“My wife is a therapist and will be starting a private practice this winter. I think Google Voice will be a good option for her. It should allow her to contact clients through her cell phone without giving out her personal cell phone number and allow her to keep accurate records.”

“Would I recommend it? Yes, actually I would, I think it will fill a definite need for some people. There is generally a high level of confidence about Google products.”


“The call screening, ringing multiple phones, voicemail, and voicemail transcription are great features. I would recommend this to others. I do believe that there is a degree of technical knowledge that is needed to use and get used to the service so those not used to trying new technology may get discouraged or not understand the benefits.”

“Yes and no, I would not recommend it if the person using it is not technical and I feel that they would be intimidated by the ability to route calls. I would only recommend it to power users and/or people who can use routing for phone calls.”

“Yes. Having a Google Voice number allows portability and privacy. I think that they would especially like the built in call screen.”

What features would you like to see added?

“E-mail to voice—read me urgent e-mails would be great.”

“The ability to have the caller ID concatenate both the Google Voice number and the caller’s number in the caller ID field [for incoming calls]. This would allow me to know which number they are calling along with their number. At this point, it is a binary decision.”

“What I want from Google Voice:
*I’d like a way move my home line to the GV number so i could make calls out on it easier.
*I’d really like to see it work better with my cell phone as well. I’d like to be able to use its voice mail and transcription service to replace my cell phone’s voice mail.
* I have an Android phone, it seems really obvious to me that there should be some better integration.”

“The things that it does, it does right, except outbound handset dialing.”

“1. Number portability. This is not only incredibly useful, but absolutely needed to give consumers confidence and ease the transition. I would also REALLY like Google Apps support. At the moment my domain is hosted on Google Apps, and I use that account for everything. I hate having two different Google accounts and the separate problems associated with it.”

“As far as additional features I would like to see, the only thing that comes to mind is better integration with my cell phones. I switch between a G1 and a Windows Mobile. I just recently came across, but I haven’t tried it. There doesn’t appear to be any solution for Windows Mobile.”

“I would like to see a desktop client for OS X / Linux / Windows so I can make and receive calls via the desktop. This would be AMAZING and I would pay $20-$30 for this software.”

“A: Display name with caller ID. There are asterisk plugins that can do this and I assume that google could do the same thing. Single number multiple extensions (e.g. let me replace my office pbx with Google Voice).”

“I would love to be able to route phone calls to my desktop from Google Voice and that would be one of the best things it could offer me.”

[Update 7/10/09: Lifehacker has a good piece today on “how to east your transition to Google Voice.”]

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

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