It isn't enough for Google to dominate the world of Web search while also grabbing a huge slice of E-mail and Internet video. The online giant now thinks it can slip past AT&T and Verizon to capture the center of voice communications.
First was its Android software that's competing for mobile phones. Now comes something called Google Voice, which reflects its broad ambitions. It's a feature-rich service that promises to upend our relationship with phones, twist our perception of phone numbers, and alter how we use both.
[Read about other fun and free phone tricks.]
Understanding Google Voice is difficult without experiencing it. And that's been difficult for all but a small group of testers, most of whom got into the service when it was under the name of Grand Central. Google bought Grand Central several years ago but didn't say much about the service until earlier this year.
Then the search company rolled out Google Voice. The essence of Grand Central was a single phone number that, when dialed, would ring any phone that you wanted. That means one dialing destination that would never change and that would ring a mobile handset, home phone, office line, Skype ID, and/or any other of a user's changing cast of numerical nicknames.
But Google Voice lathers on numerous features to Grand Central that make the service unlike anything else available.
It's a compelling offer, especially at the price. In typical Google fashion, there is no cost to users, at least not yet. Maybe there will be later, at least for premium services. For now, the only cost is a potential loss of privacy. That will give pause to the same folks who won't use Gmail because of spying Google robots that scan their missives and post related ads alongside.
The same thing is likely to happen in what could be called "Gvoice." Google will have access to voice mail, if not phone chats themselves. The ever more-pervasive giant is finding new ways to probe our thoughts for products we might want to buy.
That paranoia aside, other issues arise with the service. Calling from the new Google Voice number means having to dial an extra set of numbers or visit the service's Web page. Otherwise, calls from a cellphone or land line still display its original number in caller ID. That will confuse recipients on which number they should use to call back. New apps for smart phones make it easier to use the Google Voice number but don't fully solve the issue.
[Read how the iPhone has a huge lead in apps.]
Still, everyone should take a close look at Google Voice. There's no beating the price.
Google late last month announced it had opened the service to others who had asked for "invites." Google hasn't said how quickly it is adding new users, but here are highlights of what they'll find:
One ring to find them all. A single, central number alone made Grand Central a great service. Google Voice also hands out a new phone number free of charge. Users then decide which other numbers are rung when that Google number is called, managing it all through an easy-to-use website. Users may think it's a hassle sending out yet another change in numbers. But, in theory, this would be the last. Move across country, and the Google number moves with you. Also, for those who wait, Google hopes to soon be able to transfer or "port" existing numbers to its service. A current cellphone or land-line number could become a Google number.
One ring to bring them all. All voice mail gets dumped into one, big, fat mailbox. No longer do you have to remember to check three or four voice boxes. If you don't answer a call, Google gladly records the voice message. The service then sends a note to your E-mail address or multiple addresses, or even a text message to your cellphone. The message arrives as an audio file that you can play without ever having to call Google Voice.
Transcripts! Say it again: Transcripts! Imagine a secretary who listens to voice mail and sends a typed transcript of each message. Golden. The Google secretary is a bit hard of hearing, sort of like getting phone messages jotted by a grandmother. But almost all the transcripts get the gist. And reading is so much faster than listening. This is a service that's been available by paying third parties to intercept cellphone calls. Now it will be available for all phones, free.