Ten transient thoughts on the recent mediocre Google Voice announcement.
Google Voice took what was finally being understood as “Google Voice” and took out most of its features and launched it as “Google Voice” to a different group of users. More specifically, they said that those that want to use its voice mail features on existing “mobile” phones, may do so.
A few very important things didn’t change. It is not a readily available product. It is still a selective product (rules of universal access don’t apply). It is still a free product. Any changes in those areas would be big news. The news itself is not particularly newsworthy or even interesting. But I suspect the reasons behind it are.
1) Porting: The first thing that needs to be clarified is this is not the same as supporting number portability (as Gizmodo reported). No one is porting numbers into Google Voice (a restriction that many have complained about) – that would be news. Voice mail is delivered via call forwarding – this is true on cell phones and land lines. For conditions of busy and no answer, the call is forwarded to a different number where a voice mail system answers and processes the call.
2) Features and Revenue: Google Voice offers a number of unique features – particularly popular is ring-all, conferencing, and yes voice mail which includes transcription. The service is free, but isn’t free for Google to deliver. How Google intends to monetize the service hasn’t been shared. But one theory is Google can attach advertising keywords to voice mail once its transcribed. The fact they are opening up Google voice to more users and reducing its services concurrently could be a signal that advertising is indeed the key monetization strategy. The full blown Google Voice includes free domestic long distance and cheap International rates – this new service only offers cheap international rates. They cut the lost leaders and kept the revenue generating aspects.
3) Who: Oddly, they are positioning the voice mail service to “existing mobile phone numbers” only. Call forwarding works the same on all phones and there is no reason to limit the service to cell phones. That might suggest there is something desirable about the cell phone demographic; maybe the one to one (phone number and user) relationship. It just seems a bit odd to announce a new service and arbitrarily limit the potential users.
4) Free voice mail: Particularly free voice mail that offers transcription and sends SMS alerts is news. This will significantly threaten a mature industry known as hosted voice mail which usually sells services similar to with a per user per month model. Also this week we learned Google’s Android 2.0 phones include free turn by turn navigation and the edia response is GPS shares “plunge” or GPS makers are on a “Road to Nowhere“. But what about all those voice mail services out there that just got a big national brand competitor giving away their livelihood? I didn’t see any news about that. Companies such as jott.com, americanvoicemail.com, ringcentral.com, freedomvoice.com, voicenation.com, and many many more have some interesting times ahead.
5) Name: Why exactly didn’t Google rename the service? “Google Voice Mail”, “Google Voice Lite”, whatever…. The issue here is so many people remain confused about this service that offering two forms of the service with the same name can’t be a good thing.
6) Grass Roots: No mention of “Take Back the Beep“. New York Times columnist David Pogue is working to create awareness and anger around the way the cell phone companies make millions on their voice mail service. Very few people realize they are being duped. The scam is most users get free calls within their carrier (cell to cell), but cell to voice mail (land line) are not free. This is inverse logic, the call is free if they answer, but costs me if they don’t. Worse than that, if you do go to voice mail – the carrier’s voice mail systems are very slow and offer ridiculous menu choices (to page this person…) to lengthen the call (same to the customer when they dial in to check messages). The mystery here is Google offers a competitive service, that is free and targeted to cell phone users and make no mention of Pogue, the NY Times or Take Back the Beep.
7) Members Only: Even this new version of Google Voice is by invitation only. Why? Invitations are not hard to get, and this streamlined service has less cost than the full Google Voice offering – why not just offer the service? Google Voice remains a mystery – many people are reluctant to give out their Google Voice number as the service has no clear or public direction or strategy from Google.
8) What’s in a Number? Google is effectively explaining that they can’t offer all of their advanced services with just any number – that only one of their numbers (that they provide and assign) can be fully functional Google Voice numbers. It provides an image of giant super servers with lots of flashing lights. GV does support porting out of GV (you can make their number unspecial and keep it), but won’t support number porting in. Not even for a fee. Clearly a deliberate and artificial restriction. They now support some limited features for those with call forwarding, and that generates news. Hello? The real conversation is why won’t Google support number porting?
9) Tropics: What about speech recognition quality? In most situations I review the text version of my voice mail before I hear it. About 50% of the time, I can’t even figure out the topic until I hear it. Transcription is really a key feature that sets Google Voice mail apart from the competitors, but it needs a lot of work. I use Goog-411 farily regularly and find it pretty accurate. I assume it is the same engine, and the different results are due to people knowing when they are speaking to a computer. On Goog-411 I speak slowly and clearly, but no so when I leave a voice message for someone. We all act a little differently when we speak a computer, for example, when I computer asks me why I am calling, instead of saying “general merchandise inventory selection question” i just say “Operator”.
10) Synchronized Messaging: When voice mail to email first came out, it as largely done with forwarding a copy of the voice mail to the email. This created two copies of the message and two to process and delete. That slowly improved with IMAP and other means of keeping one instance of the message – delete once. Google Voice is still forwarding the message. In my case, I have three to delete – SMS, email, and GV Inbox. Not offering synchronization options is a down right primitive. Even worse, the dial-in telephone user interface offers up unread messages – of which the vast majority of my messages are since I play them in email. As a voice mail only service, Google Voice isn’t particularly innovative or feature rich.
I found the news this week about Google Voice interesting, but not in itself. It is interesting the Google is dramatically changing and clouding (pun intended) the service’s value proposition. It was all about a single number for life regardless of the devices and services used – now it is a service with your existing voice mail. The other thing was how much attention the relatively minor news got, and how little coverage its bigger ramification got regarding the threat to established voice mail providers. I remain a big fan of Google Voice and use it heavily, but remain cautiously optimistic about where the service is going.