Google voice is essentially a fancy call forwarding service. A very fancy call forwarding service. It started shortly after Google bought Grand Central in , a company that did practically the same thing. Here’s how it works. Google gives you a new number, and you give that to your friends and coworkers for them to call. Then you merely tell Google what you cell phone number is, and it forwards you’re calls from your Google Voice number to your cell phone number. This seems rather trivial until you see what Google allows you to do.
You can separate you’re contacts into groups (similar to Facebook’s lists) that allows you to group people into coworkers, close friends, casual friends, and as many categories as you can think of. From here you have several options. You can create a custom voicemail greeting for each group. You can set different groups to ring different phones, depending on how many phones you have registered with Google. So if you’re mom calls, it will ring your cell phone, home phone, and work phone, if Google has all those numbers. Coworkers can be sent only to your mobile, and so one.
Voicemail has its own features that I’ve never seen in any other service. These features go beyond custom greeting assigned to different groups. You can have you voicemails transcribed and sent to your phone via SMS. Granted the transcription isn’t perfect, but it’s been getting better since they started. You can have your voicemail sent to your email as well.
To top it all off, you can access all this through your browser. Once logged into Google Voice, you can read and listen to all your voicemail as well as send and receive SMS texts. There is even an Android App that does the same thing. You can even start a call from your browser. Just select the person you want to call, Google calls you, you answer, then Google calls the person you selected.
Sadly, with all this browser functionality, there has been one feature that has been missing until now. The ability to use Google Voice as a VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) client to call other GVoice users or landlines has been missing. This missing feature has been lamented among even the most enthusiastic Voice user. Even with all the features that come with Google Voice, the whole package seemed incomplete.
Gizmo5 is a company that allows you to make free calls from your computer, similar to Skype except the key word was free. Gizmo5 assigns you a number that you others can call you on and you can make calls from. Gizmo5 has voicemail and SMS as well. The only drawback here was that you had to be logged into your computer to make or receive calls using your Gizmo5 Number. This meant you need to give out both your Google Voice number, and you Gizmo5 number. Obviously this plan is flawed because no one is going to try your Gizmo5 number first so you can make free calls. They will just call you Google voice number directly. Several people found a way to pair Google Voice with their Gizmo5 account, allowing them to use their Google Voice Number with their Gizmo5 number, essentially allowing to place calls with Gizmo5 through Google Voice from their computers all for free. Unfortunately this is not an option for the rest of us. Gizmo5 no longer exists.
On November 12th last year, Google bought Gizmo5 for $30 million. As soon as this happened, the rumors started flying. “Google is going to provide us all with free phone calls!” “Google will bring down Skype!” “Google is going to take on AT&T!” Obviously, since the Android OS had been out for exactly two years, it looked like Google was going to take on AT&T and Apple at the same time. And given the fact that Google released the Nexus One back in January, this may or may not be true. But that’s beside the point.
No one has been holding their breath waiting for these extra features. Google took two years to release Grand Central as Google Voice. But there have been reports of Google rolling out and internal version of the new Gizmo5 enhanced Google Voice to their employees. So far two reputable blogs, TechCruch and Download Squad, are reporting that they have sources that have filled them in. From what I can tell from the little details that are out there, we will be able to make and receive calls for the computer. This may be possible through the browser, but in may require a download to be installed on the computer.
This had many implications. For starters, this means I could make and take calls from places that I can’t get cell phone coverage. Like inside the Nedderman basement of some of the classrooms in Picard Hall where I can get wifi but Sprint’s signal cannot get through the walls. This could be very useful for someone who has an office in either of those buildings. Another potential is an app that can run on Android (or maybe even the iPhone) that can use a wifi connection to make a phone call. Occasionally I’ve seen situations where the voice network has been flooded with calls at a big event. A user may then be able to make a call over wifi, or perhaps even their 3G connection.
In the long term, this seemingly minor addition of critical features could have a significant impact on communications. Given the proper apps, a “phone” could make a phone call without a voice plan through a traditional cell phone provider. Phone calls could now be made over a wifi connection or a 3G internet connection. You could conceivably get by with only a data plan and no voice plan, if a company would give that option. Clear is one company in the DFW area that provides only data using the new 4G WIMAX standard. Google also provides free wifi internet access in the city of Mountain View, CA. You could theoretically get an internet enabled device and use that as your phone using a data plan through Clear or for free through Google up in Mountain View.
The implications are even bigger than just pure internet phones. You could already use an internet phone in that city. Google is rolling out and incredibly inexpensive, ridiculously high speed internet backbone to provide access to several communities. This is about as Beta as something like this gets, and lines up very nicely with Google’s previous methods of rolling out a new product. It would not be very surprising to find out that Google will be trying to provide internet to more of the country in the not so distant future. Once these internet lines are running, it would not be very challenging for Google to set up several towers to provide inexpensive (or free) 3G, or by that time 4G service to large metropolitan areas. And I can see them quickly expanding to cover rural areas as well.
But it doesn’t stop there. What happens when you can make a phone call from any internet device? And the person you are calling can receive that phone call from any internet capable device? Your phone number is no longer tethered to your phone, it’s tethered to you. Your phone number become a lot more like your Facebook page that a series of ten random numbers that happens to be associated with you. It becomes a lot more like and email address than a phone number. There I vast potential with a Service like Google Voice to significantly alter the way we communicate vocally. As soon as they add these features and the internet coverage is there.
Now, we are nowhere near anything like this happening any time soon. We are at least a few years off from cell phone service providers offering data only plans. We are even further from the vast majority people, much less everyone, using a service similar to Google Voice that would allow everyone to have this capability. It will be many years before other providers offer something similar enough to make a universally compatible service.
Eventually though, when phone, TV, and maybe even radio are all just different channels on the internet, all forms of communication will be merged. And then we’ll have to worry about what instead of the how. How we will communicate will be the same. We will communicate through the internet. But will our quality of communications increase? Will the meaning matter as much as the effort that was put into building the communications system? Who knows. I guess we’ll find out. But I’m going to die laughing when they start arguing over whether or not “I can haz cheezburger” is a constitutional right.