Posted by: Frank | November 21, 2009

Google Has My Voice

I have to admit it, the folks from Mountain View, CA have got me, lock, stock, and barrel. The biggest trojan horse in the Google arsenal may be Google Voice, which is a free call management application that is universally praised by anyone who uses it. To me the most valuable thing that it provides is a phone number that is associated to you as a person. The phone number that I have with Google Voice will be with me forever, no matter what mobile provider I am with, where I live in the United States, or what long distance provider I have. When someone calls me using the number, the phones that I associate to the number (in my case my personal and work cell phones, but it could also be my home phone or a car phone) all ring at the same time. It no longer matters which cell phone I carry, I will get your call, provided that you use the number. My Google Voice number is the number I have put on my Facebook profile, and is the number I have started to regularly provide as my phone number.

Google Voice also provides an inbox for managing voice mails and text messages, something that Palm introduced a while back as “visual voice mail.” The idea is that instead of dialing a phone number to get a playback of your messages, and having listen to them serially to get to a message that you want to hear, you can run an application or open a web site that shows your messages just like your e-mail inbox. You just select the message you want to hear, and it plays back.

The Google Voice Application that I have on my phone displays the same inbox that I can see on the Google Voice web site. You can configure the Google Voice application to continually run and check your inbox at a set frequency, and when you receive a new message a notification will appear at the top of your mobile phone. Google Voice can also send notifications via text message and e-mail, so Android non-believers using iPhones can still gain the benefits of using Google Voice. I recently implemented a tip I found on the Adroinica blog to consolidate all of Google Voice’s notifications in Gmail, which is not only my main e-mail client but is also becoming my repository of information.

Google Voice is not a Voice over IP (VoIP) application, a point that is often misunderstood by people who don’t actually use the service. It does provide a way for one to make free long distance calls, including calls outside the United States, but the call is made using the Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) that all landlines and cellular phones use. In otherwords, calls initiated using Google Voice still use the minutes that you pay your mobile provider to use. You can use the Google Voice web site or application to initiate a call, and Google’s software will ring your phone and then dial the phone number that you initiated. The caller ID on the phone that you are calling will display your Google Voice number instead of the number of the phone you are using, which can be useful if you only want people to know your Google Voice number.

If you make long distance calls using a landline, or you make international calls, you can save money using Google Voice, but if you only use a cell phone, Google Voice will provide little, if any, cost savings.

This past week Google announced that they will be aquiring Gizmo, which is a Voice over IP service, and stated that they intend to integrate Gizmo’s technology with Google Voice. VoIP services like Skype, Vonage and Comcast, provide phone service using the Internet and bypass the phone company’s service. Most VoIP applications require you to use a computer to make the phone call, though some will integrate regular phones in a way so that you can continue using the phones in your house with their service.

Because SmartPhones connect to the Internet and can run applications, it is technically possible to use VoIP with SmartPhones like the iPhone and the Verizon Droid. While you will use the the data service that you get from your provider, the carriers do not want to have all voice calls shift from their voice network to their data network. There may be financial reasons behind this concern, but the most likely reason is that the carrier’s data networks are not nearly robust enough yet to support all of the VoIP traffic on their data network. So far the carriers are combating VoIP with a combination of lower cost, flat fee, all you can use, voice plans (no need to use VoIP when you have unlimited minutes on the provider’s voice network) and high prices and caps on their data networks. Most provider’s plans have a 5GB cap on their data plans and cost on average $60 per month. AT&T and Apple have resisted allowing VoIP applications to run on the iPhone.

Gizmo provides more than just VoIP to Google. John C. Dvorak reported on This Week In Tech that Gizmo owns it’s own area code, which provides a large pool of phone numbers, and has significant POTS integration. Gizmo also already has a billing system in place to charge for VoIP calls to POTS numbers. Services like Skype and Gizmo provide free calls between computers, but to call an actual phone number you have to pay money, usually at a very low per-minute rate. For example, I use the Skype Out serve to make phone calls from my computer, and I buy a bucket of minutes for $10. Since I don’t use Skype Out service frequently, my bucket of minutes last a long time.

By now you may understand why I consider Google Voice to be a trojan horse. All though right now you can only sign-up for Google Voice if you have an invite, it is a free service, and has a very low barrier to entry. Most people will find the service so valuable that if Google were to announce that they will charge for some or all of the service, they will gladly pay money to use it. I expect the aquisition of Gizmo signals that Google is putting in place a way to monetize Google Voice.  Most likely they will charge for lower rate international and long distance calls, but they also might have a monthly fee for “premium” services. If I am right this would mark a significant move for Google because it provides a new revenue stream beyond the advertising revenue that today is Google’s primary source of income.

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