Most of the excitement about telephones these days concerns the iPhone, Palm Pre, Android phones and similar small computers. These devices let you browse Web sites, check your e-mail, make appointments in your calendar, watch the latest You Tube videos, listen to music, take pictures, make movies, direct you to your next meeting with spoken turn-by-turn directions, and even make phone calls.
With all that excitement in your pocket it’s easy to forget that most of us are also tethered to one or more wired phones at home and work. Missing an important call from a client is easy to do if you don’t hear your cell phone ring, and don’t bother checking your office voice mail before heading out on Friday afternoon. Using only a cell phone works for some people, but it’s not practical if your company has a main and/or toll free number, or for those cases where you have to transfer a caller down the hall.
Google seems to be everywhere these days so I guess it’s not surprising that they are also trying to shake up the old fashioned phone business with a service called Google Voice. (No surprise, AT&T has already complained to the FCC about Google Voice, trying to nip this upstart competitor in the bud.) Like many of their other new online tools Google Voice is technically in beta test so it’s not guaranteed to be reliable, available, or ever become a real product. But for now at least Google Voice is available, mostly reliable, free, and really handy for small businesses in particular.
Google Voice is a call management system, not a phone company. Most of what it does is give you a lot of control about how to handle your incoming calls. When you sign up for Google Voice they give you a new phone number (you can choose from area codes/exchanges all over the country, but you can’t port your old number yet). We were able to get a fun number 70-Rstoeber (707-786-3237) using a simple number search tool. On the Google Voice Web site you specify what should happen to callers that dial your new number. For example:
- Calls from your important clients can simultaneously ring on your cell phone, office phone, home phone, and the phone at the coffee shop down the block.
- Calls from your mother-in-law can go right to voice mail where she hears a personalized greeting that you recorded just for her.
Friends can ring on your home phone only, while co-workers ring on your cell phone only.
- All unknown callers can be forced to say their name and then hold on while you decide whether to answer or send them to voice mail.
- Your contacts can be divided into groups such as: family, friends, clients, vendors, softball team, etc. Each group can be assigned to hear a different voice mail message when they call, and their calls can ring on different phones.
Another interesting feature of Google’s voice mail is that they will send a transcript of the message to your e-mail address. This is particularly handy if you are in a place where it would be inappropriate to answer a phone or check your voice mail messages. If your e-mail is delivered to your phone (as it should be in 2009) you can discreetly read your voice mail messages and decide how urgent it is.
Outbound calls on Google Voice are also possible. You can initiate the call from the Google Voice Web site by selecting someone in your contact list. In this case your own phone will ring; after you answer you will be connected to the other person. From your phone you can also call your own Google Voice number and press 2 to initiate an outgoing call. Such calls are free in the US. International calls range from about 29 cents/minute to Afghanistan, to 2 cents/minute to the UK.
Finally, if you do a lot of marketing online, or sell products from your Web site, you can also put a “Call Me” button directly on your Contact Us page. See ours here:
Anyone pressing that button is asked to enter their name and phone number. Their phone rings first and then your phone. When you answer you hear their name announcement and have the option of answering or sending them to voice mail.
Google Voice is a very cool service and for now at least it’s completely free so try it out. Getting started is a little tricky. You have to request an invitation to join the beta test. As far as I know everyone that requests an invite gets it, but it might take a week or two. Visit the Google Voice Web site and look for the invite link:
We’ve received a few calls asking what the difference is between Google Voice and Vonage, which is another phone service we’ve been recommending for years. Here’s the short comparison:
Google Voice is more like a really fancy answering machine than a real phone company – it wouldn’t do you any good if you didn’t already have a phone line to use with that answering machine. You can’t buy a phone line from Google, only a phone number that will reach only Google Voice, so you must have at least one “real” phone from some other company to use Google Voice at all. You can’t transfer/port existing numbers to Google Voice. Many of the features of Google Voice are also available from your “real” phone provider, including Vonage. For example, you can easily make your Vonage number ring simultaneously on your cell, home and office phones.
Our Own Google Voice App
Vonage is a complete replacement for traditional “land line” phone companies. They offer a $25/month plan that allows unlimited calling to 60 countries, including calls to cell phones in some countries. When you sign up, Vonage will send you a little box with two connections: one gets plugged into your Internet connection like a computer; the other connector is where you plug in a normal telephone. You can transfer (usually called “port”) your old phone numbers to Vonage. You do need a good Internet connection to make Vonage, or any Internet-based calling work reliably. Vonage and other companies offer online tools to test your connection before you sign up – if it’s not good enough forget Internet calling until you get a better connection. Most wired Internet connections (cable or DSL) should be good enough for Internet calling, but wireless connections might be a problem.
If you decide to try Google Voice, or already use it, you might enjoy this little application we just whipped up. This is an Adobe AIR app so it runs on Windows, Mac and Linux. It’s a simple little thing that lets you run the Google Voice mobile site as a stand alone application without keeping an extra browser window open for that. Not a big deal, but it could be handy, and it also has a button to let you see the current status of various Google services (but not Google Voice yet). We’ll probably add more features as time goes on so let us know what you think.
Download our Adobe AIR app for Google Voice.