Google Voice After 1 Week

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I’ve been using Google Voice for about a week now. There are some things I really like coupled with a few frustrations. It is a very powerful service that I believe will be very popular, but it is very rough around the edges.

InBound Calls

For incoming calls, it is great. Of course, that only works if people call it. Getting people to call involves the “my number has changed” dance which we all hate going through. We certainly don’t want to do for a simple temporary evaluation. I put my Google number in my office voice mail greeting as an alternative and changed my email signature line – and sure enough the calls started coming. There is no doubt when they are Google Voice calls because the service works best when you acknowledge the call. This prevents calls from ending up in unauthorized voice mail boxes or answering machines, or even worse in the hands of my son. It is a simple “press 1 to accept”.

It isn’t so simple on the cell phone. My cell phone is locked against accidental dialing. When a call comes in, I can answer it, but to press the 1, I need to unlock the phone which is 6 keystrokes against a timer. That is a pain. I think some cell phones completely unlock on incoming calls – but Windows Mobile models connected to Exchange don’t for security reasons. Unfortunately, asking the cell phone representative which phones do and don’t completely unlock may be an exercise in futility. But if you intend to use Google Voice, you will want a phone keyboard that isn’t locked.

If you don’t take the call, the voice mail system is very nice. It offers many features not readily found in most PBX or key systems. The best feature is voice mail transcription. It works with reasonable accuracy and I like that I can SMS the text directly to my cell phone. What I don’t like is yet another Inbox – particularly since I use Gmail already. Now technically, I don’t really have to use the Inbox – the voice mails can be emailed. But the Inbox has some nice information besides the actual messages. The Inbox holds my messages, my SMS text messages, recorded calls, and call logs; all with Google Search. It also has my Contacts which the same Contacts found in my Gmail (not a copy), so there is some integration. I would just prefer it all to be in my Gmail in separate folders. The voice mail also offers the old answering machine feature of listening-in to the person leaving the message with the ability to still grab the call. This feature is mysteriously found on entry level key systems, but rarely on a PBX.

I tried some other Google Voice features. Conference calling for example is pretty simple. Instead of pressing a 1 to accept the call, you press a 5 to combine the calls. It requires you are on a phone with Call Waiting. Once you add the call, there is no way to drop specific callers. You can add up to four calls, but I couldn’t on my T-Mobile cell phone. The second call came in fine, and the calls combined (the first line dropped), but the third call never came to the cell. I suspect either Google or Tmobile was confused about the number of simultaneous calls on the cell (call waiting has a maximum of 2). The conference calls worked with nice volume levels. A visual view of the conference really should be in the Inbox with the ability to mute specific callers. The call recording works with conference calling which is very handy. With any Google Voice call, to record simply press the 4 key (it does announce recording started). I can’t say the 4 key is a very obvious choice, I would have preferred 7 or R. Another really handy feature is the ability to move the call from one phone to another with one touch. At any time if you press the * key, all of your other associated phones will ring, and the call can be easily moved.

Outbound Calling

Outbound calling is not as simple and marks the solution’s Achilles heel. Of course you don’t really need to use it for outbound calling, but in our callerID world, if you don’t then don’t expect people to call you back on your Google Number. The easy solution is to change your outbound caller ID with your carrier to your Google number – but most carriers won’t do this. So that means you need to use Google Voice to initiate the call which is a bit cumbersome. Basically, you need to somehow communicate to Google Voice who you want to call and where you are calling from (which phone) so the service can call you first and then place the call with the Google Voice callerID number displayed. There are several ways to do initiate a call, but Google doesn’t list them all in one place.

Here is my list of ways to initiate a call (so far):

  • From the Inbox. Login to Google Voice, and press the Call Button near the top left. Enter the phone number you want to dial, and select from the pull down which of your associated numbers you are at. GV will call you first, and then connect your call. Or, you can access Call and SMS buttons on the Contacts page.
  • From a GV phone: Once you enter your phone numbers into your profile, it can recognize when it’s you calling. Dial your own Google Voice number and you will be prompted to enter your PIN and be offered a menu with various options. Option 2 is to place a call. You need to enter the complete number – remember it can be international if you purchased credits.
  • You can also directly dial Google Voice 406 numbers, this appears to be an undocumented feature I will explain below.
  • You could actually reprogram in your speed dial the full sequence of your GV number, PIN, and contact number to replicate the speed dial affect from your cell phone.
  • You can place a call from the mobile web portal.
  • From the voice mail system, you can press 2 for call back.
  • There does not appear to be a way to click to dial from Outlook, but I did find this utility for Mozilla posted by Chad Smith. (it works quite well).
  • You can create a Click to Call (you) widget that you can place on a website
  • If you are an Ooma user, they just announced new features tightly integrated with Google Voice along with a monthly charge.

I think that is a pretty exhaustive list today, but I expect quite a few more soon. Despite the large list above, outbound calling is awkward. Making matters worse is many features are only available on incoming calls such as conference calling and the support of SIP trunks. Oddly, you cannot initiate a call from the call logs in the Inbox (Placed, Received, or Missed calls). I am also surprised the service doesn’t appear to offer speed calling which seems pretty obvious, or even better speech dialing for some or all Contacts. Another hole is the need for click to dial solutions for Outlook and other popular PIMs and/or CRMs. I have no doubt lots of people will sign up to try this service, but the number that actually stick with it and use it will be a small percentage until outbound dialing is improved. However, those improvements may come from the community rather than from Google.

SIP Integration

Only Gizmo SIP trunks are currently supported with Google voice and only for incoming calls. I integrated the Gizmo SIP trunk into my Switchvox PBX in minutes, resulting in free inbound calls (no usage charges). This could be done with any SIP device – an IP phone, or ATA into a single analog phone. Outbound SIP trunks may be the fastest and easiest solution for outbound calling.

SMS

In order for this to be your primary number, and in order for you not to give out your cell number, SMS services need to be covered. The challenge here is SMS uses the phone number for addressing. So Google did some interesting things to solve this dilemma. The description that follows contains many assumptions from me as well as what others have posted on various websites. I have not found any clear explanation or confirmation from Google.

If I send an SMS from my Google Account (sending SMS messages is free), the receiver sees the message came from my Google Voice number, but the messages I receive come from a 10 digit 406 number. 406 is an area code in Montana – my assumption is they needed lots of DID numbers and found plenty available in the land of Big Sky. Evidently, they map inbound or outbound SMS numbers to a specific 406 number. The mapping appears to be permanent, or at least a long lease. Now they can’t assign a DID number to every cell phone, so they appear to map the 406 number to my Google number first which effectively creates a 20 digit identifier instead of a 10 digit number. That means that same 10 digit 406 number can be re-used once with every Google Voice customer. So they need some number of 406 numbers to assign to contacts per customer, presumably 10,000 numbers would be sufficient. Plus Google makes no claim or warranties about how long these mappings will apply.

As stated, the SMS messages the Google Voice customer receives will all come from area code 406, so for proper identification Google inserts either their real number or their name (if in my contacts) into the body of the SMS message. Doing this trick could turn a single long SMS message into two. But the result is Mission Accomplished – my Google Voice number is used for in and out SMS messages. Now there are two interesting benefits; a log and a new number. All my SMS texts (in and out) are stored in my Google Voice Inbox along with Google Search. Ever need to find an old SMS message and couldn’t? The second benefit is this 406 number now works as a direct dial number for this contact – though only from one of my Google Voice associated phones. Because Google knows my numbers – Google knows when it’s me calling. When I dial a 406 number that Google assigned, they receive the number and see it’s me calling and they map it to the correct number and complete the call (and substitute the callerID). This is a great (undocumented) feature. If you call the 406 number from any other phone, nothing happens.

All and all, I am impressed with Google Voice and I intend to keep using it. It is a very immature service and needs some polish. It is a consumer service, which means I doubt organizations will formally embrace it until it matures a bit. I expect quite a bit in the next release, but I don’t expect the next release for two years or so – Google’s view of time is so much slower than everyone else, but they seem to be doing fine conquering the world on their own schedule.

 

Dave Michels