Google Voice Hands-On

For those folks who signed up for Grand Central, Google Voice isn't really novel -- but for the vast majority of us that didn't, it's new to us. I'd always preferred to roll my own phone system using Asterisk and have enjoyed the benefits of such for years. So what does Google Voice do that I can't or haven't? Quite a bit, actually.

Google Voice is designed to be a central phone service. You give out your Google Voice number, and let it handle all the incoming calls, including voicemail, call routing, call blocking, and so forth. It cannot link directly to a phone or PBX, unfortunately, but rather relies on acting as a proxy for whatever real phone or phones you want to use. It's limited to a single number per account for now, and choose that number wisely -- it costs $10 to change it.

[ Last week, Google announced that the Google Voice mobile app is coming to platforms like BlackBerry and Android. ]

The setup is simple -- pick a ZIP code or area code, and select from the available numbers in that area. Then, specify a few real phones to connect to that number. In my case, I chose my office land line and my cell phone. To verify the numbers, Google Voice sends an SMS message to the mobile phone with a code that you enter into the Web site to verify the phone. Rinse and repeat for other phones. Once that's done, you're ready to go.

I set up some simple rules, identifying friends and family that can skip the initial call blocking, and configured customized voicemail greetings for those groups. My friends hear one greeting, family another, and unknown callers still another. It's all very simple to set up and use.

When a call comes in, Google Voice asks the caller to identify themselves, then rings whatever phones you configured, with the caller ID appearing as the calling party (although you can modify that preference). A message is played with the calling party's recorded name, and you're given the option to answer the call or send it straight to voicemail. Alternatively, if the calling number has been identified as a known party, they can be immediately sent to the phone without the identification step.

The call quality was very good, with no artifacts or other disturbances, exactly what I'd expect. Every test I ran produced the same results, with all callers agreeing that it sounded like a cell phone call if I was on my cell, or a land line if that's what I was using.

The voicemail Web interface is basically identical to Gmail, with voicemails appearing as email messages that can be played directly, and more importantly, are transcribed into text. In fact, a new voicemail notification can be sent to a cellphone as an SMS message with the first sentence of the voicemail contained as text in the SMS. The first test I ran for the transcription was 100 percent accurate. A second test was less so, confusing "dude" with "David", but the caller was purposefully speaking quickly and clipping words. A more natural third test was again 100 percent accurate.

So then I decided to have some fun with it. I left several voicemail messages in odd accents, even mixing accents in the middle of a message. Rich Little I'm not, but I think I got a good sample of what would normally be difficult accents to transcribe. The results were not 100 percent, but were certainly accurate enough to be useful. For instance, my British-accented "party" turned into "possibly", and "cheerio" became "jerry okay", but the rest of the message was fine. The southern accent I tried was even better, even getting somewhat odd words like "grits". Suffice it to say, I had some fun and was impressed with the transcription.

Outgoing calls with Google Voice are somewhat cumbersome if you lack the Google Voice mobile app. To make an outgoing call, you must log into the Google Voice UI, enter a number to call, and wait for the system to call you, then connect the outbound call. For SMS, you an send from the Web UI and receive on a mobile. I would imagine that this gets much easier with an app, but how that will integrate into the iPhone might be interesting. I'd assume that we're going to see that app sooner rather than later. There is a $3 third-party app called GV Mobile that can help in the interim.

But there's another question: Is Google aiming to be a voice provider? Google Voice isn't, but it could be if it were to support SIP and/or IAX trunks. That way, I could link my Asterisk system directly and stop messing around ... but that's an entirely different market with lots of established players. For now, I'll be using Google Voice as a sideline number, not my main voice presence. I still use BroadVoice as a SIP provider, and the irony of their outage this weekend wasn't lost on me. If Google were to offer trunking services, I'd probably sign up, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

I do wonder what Google is going to do when the service opens to a wider audience -- it must have a finite supply of phone numbers, but if it's anything like Gmail, it's going to see huge numbers of users, and many of them will sign up and rarely if ever actually use the service. Supposedly, lots of invitations went out on the 15th, but I know folks that got theirs prior to that and those that are still waiting patiently.

So if you've signed up for Google Voice, hopefully you'll get you invitation soon and be able to check it out for yourself. Until then, Jerry Okay!

This story, "Google Voice Hands-On" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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