Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On Google Voice

I have a shocking admission to make: I have a life outside of diabetes. Yes, it's true, and I have interests that have nothing to do with the big D. This post is about one of these items.

I have been what could be described as a fairly heavy Google user. I'm not talking about using Google's core search engine, but my blog is hosted on Google's Blogspot, I rely on Google's reader to keep up with the hundreds of blogs I follow, I've had a Gmail account since they first began offering them a number of years ago (although truth be told, Gmail is NOT my primary e-mail account, I just don't dig its interface), I have a number of documents, spreadsheets, Powerpoint presentations and PDFs on file with Google Docs (and it also doubles as a great tool to convert Microsoft Office documents into PDFs) -- you can also share spreadsheets there which theoretically would make it a potentially useful tool to share your blood glucose logs with a doctor or diabetes educator (assuming they're online, which may not be the case), etc., etc., etc. Sure, other blog hosting services may have newer or better features, and there are some annoying limitations when it comes to Google Docs' spreadsheets that limit its practical usage (too few lines in their spreadsheet, as I've discovered), but for me, the key is having it all located in a central location with a single login. Plus, all of these things are paid for by Google's efficient advertising machine, so it costs me as an end-user absolutely nothing.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I got my invitation to Google Voice, but it took me a while to warm up to it. For those of who who haven't seen the internet chatter about Google Voice, it's been billed by some fans as the next "category killer" application. Personally, I don't see that happening, but as I've toyed around with the application and become more familiar with it, I've started to realize the potential value of this service and I really do like some of its features.

What does Google Voice do?

Well, in short, it's something of a telecommunications service that officially launched on March 11, 2009. I say something of because it does not provide you with a phone or even the service, and you do need internet access to use it. If the power is out and you don't have a Blackberry/iPhone, then your access to the control panel on Google Voice is more limited, and you still need to pay someone else for basic phone service.

Although Google Voice officially launched, I think for the moment, it's open only by invitation (anyone can request an application, but I believe those with Gmail accounts are considered sooner than those who aren't). In essence, the service enables you to choose a dedicated Google Voice telephone number, which you can control and access online. From there, you can then add many different numbers to which calls made to your Google Voice number are then forwarded. But you can also control which calls go through to you, and which ones go directly to voicemail (which, naturally, you can customize), and you can also set the hours when calls are forwarded to your different numbers. This means you can have calls from family members go through directly all the time to all of your different phones (your cell phone, your office phone, your home landline number, even a "gizmo" as Google calls them) and these will ring simultaneously until you answer one of these phones or the call rolls over to your Google voicemail. From there, it gets even more interesting. For example, your voicemail messages are accessible online, and Google also transcribes the voice message into text for you (if you want that). This sounds nifty if you get hundreds of calls all day, but the real selling point for me was the simple cost of making long-distance calls, which is completely free in the U.S. and Canada (I think Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are also included in that).

I realize the days of long-distance costing a fortune has long since gone the way of the Ford Edsel, but have you ever looked at your landline (for those of you who even have one) or your cell phone bill? There are so many taxes and they nickel and dime you on everything. International calls aren't free on Google Voice, but the rates are incredibly low. For example, $0.02/minute to much of Western Europe (except cell phones, which cost more to call), and further, to places like the Philippines, calls are $0.11/minute, and the price you pay does not include any other miscellaneous taxes that occur with regular long-distance services. Plus, these calls can be initiated on your cell or other phone (as well as online), so you could theoretically call abroad on your cell at rates that are among the lowest I've seen anywhere (just pay attention to the minutes you're using!). To make a call, you type in the number you want to call online, or call your own Google Voice number and hit the * key and a menu will guide you through the process. A few seconds later, you get a call back. Plus, the person you're calling will see your Google Voice number on their caller ID.

Although services like Vonage, Comcast Digital Voice, Time Warner Digital Phone, Cablevision Optimum Voice, MagicJack, etc. also do this, these companies also control the rates, which can vary considerably, and they haven't been shy (at all) about raising their rates in recent years. And you pay a minimum even if you don't make any calls. With Google Voice, you only pay if you make an international call, but your domestic calls remain free.

There are some other nifty features. For example, you can conference call simply by having people calling you. There is no apparent limit, and you can conference in only those you want to be in on the call, and add new participants in whenever they call in.

The downsides: well, you are ceding a boatload of data over to Google, and Google's privacy policy doesn't offer tremendous protection. (Some people who are Twittering every mundane detail about their lives may not even consider this a big deal ... until it's too late!) But then again, neither does SBC or Verizon, although one could argue these companies are drowning in data and they have yet to figure out what do do with it all. Google, on the other hand, might. It's also possible that more advertising could emerge on top of Google Voice services. But its a consideration for some.

The other downside, for the moment anyway, is that you cannot yet port your existing number as your Google Voice number, although they claim that is in development. As the various videos online suggest, the service isn't perfect. Transcription, for example, doesn't work perfectly. Oh, and the choice of numbers isn't ideal. For those of us in New York City, for example, you cannot get a number with a 212, 917, 646, or even a 718 area code. In fact, I wasn't sure they even had a NYC area code available, and I didn't relish having a 914 or 516 area code, but alas, I did find they had 347 area codes (which is an overlay prefix for the 718 area code). Anyway, its not perfect, but is pretty cool. Especially the free calls!!

Anyway, that's my non-D related post for today. See, I told you I have interests that have nothing to do with diabetes! To get your Google Voice invitation, visit

Catch this NYTimes/CNBC video overview of Google Voice here:

1 comment:

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