An iPhone + Google Voice Solution.

For the last 18 months, I’ve been using Google Voice as my exclusive business number. I had it printed on our sweet business cards. Aside from having it forward to my personal cell number, though, it wasn’t doing much for me. In my defense, for much of that time it was essentially worthless when paired with an iPhone. Only recently did a fully-featured HTML client appear, and it wasn’t until earlier this month that Apple finally approved the long-awaited and, at least for me, highly anticipated iPhone app.

I started messing around with the app more as an experiment than anything else, until it occurred to me that I might have in front of me a real solution for free, unlimited text messaging. Sure, apps allegedly providing that already exist, but they’re buggy, poorly designed, and don’t provide a dedicated number like Google Voice.

After a few weeks of testing the app, I’m close to pushing all-in and canceling my AT&T text plan. I may even start the unpleasant process of updating my friends and family on the new number. Consider this, then, my official pros and cons list for anyone considering running Google Voice as their primary number on an iPhone.

Why not?

Okay, to be fair, there are many reasons why Google Voice is something to fear rather than embrace. If we’re going to do it, we should at least take an objective look at the potential consequences. I see two major categories of Google Voice + iPhone issues. The first are fears about what may happen; the second issues with the current setup. Let’s take each in turn.

Fears.

Is Google going to force me (or people who call me) to listen to ads? This may be my biggest concern, so I don’t want to dismiss it lightly. ReadWriteWeb reported on this possibility a year-and-a-half ago. Given that it hasn’t happened yet, I’m inclined to believe it won’t. Still, you have to wonder how Google plans to make money from this service. It can’t be cheap to buy up all those numbers, handle the infrastructure, etc. It’s not out of the question that they keep running it at a loss, but that doesn’t sound sustainable to me. If Google begins injecting ads, I’m out. Immediately. I’d rather pay than be, at best, inconvenienced or, at worst, utterly creeped out.

Which conveniently brings us to, Will Google be listening in? Not according to their privacy policy. Still, it has to be stored / cached / archived somewhere. With great accessibility come great … privacy concerns? I really don’t know. What I do know is AT&T or any other cell phone network could just as easily store your conversations, so unless you’re ready to give up modern conveniences, you might as well get used to absolute privacy being a fleeting notion.

Or, Will Google start charging for the Google Voice features? If it was any other company, I’d say chances are yes. As an ad-based company, however, Google has shown nearly complete unwillingness to charge for their products. They give away entire operating systems on that principle. Aside from Google Apps for your domain, I can’t think of single instance of Google charging for a product. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but my prediction is targeted text ads in the Google Voice interface is ultimately what we’ll see. I’m not looking forward to it, but it could be a lot worse.

So will I ever have to deal with an outage, like Gmail had? Yes. Google Voice has been down several times. I know, none of us wants to be stranded without phone service or unable to make an important business call. It’s a real problem. One that will prevent people from taking Google Voice seriously until its resolved. Still, at this point, you have your fallback number to make calls — at least until Google VoiPce is unveiled.

What about Apple? Will they kick Google Voice out of the store or prevent new features? Until just a few weeks ago, this was not only a fear but an actuality. Thankfully, Apple has backed off their hostile position. After using Google Voice for a few weeks, though, I can understand their initial reasoning. I’ll get more into that when I discuss issues with Google’s implementation, but suffice it to say having Google Voice on the iPhone is both a usability headache and competitive concern. My gut feeling, though, is that Apple won’t try to stuff the horses back into the bag or herd the cats back into the barn. What’s done is done. Google Voice on the iPhone is here to stay. My bigger concern is that if Android begins to “win,” Google will allow the iPhone app to stagnate. If that is realistically the worst case scenario, I can live with it.

If all else fails, Google offers the ability to port your number away from Google Voice for no charge. You can always run sheepishly back into a traditional carrier’s welcoming arms.

Implementation Concerns.

A combination of Apple policies and Google user interface and programming errors make running Google Voice on the iPhone less than perfect. To be clear, the Google Voice app is far from bad, but you know with greater leniency on Apple’s part or more attention and taste on Google’s part, it could be something amazing.1 That said, here’s where the Google Voice app doesn’t quite stack up:

Two places for everything. Somebody sent you a text message? A missed phone call? A voicemail? You’ll need to hit both the Google Voice app and the native Phone and Messages apps to be sure you have all your bases covered. From what I hear, Google Voice can hook into the native Android calling and texting applications. I can’t see Apple ever taking that tack. If you want to avoid doubling up, you’ll need to convert to Google Voice full-time, which means …

Worse everything. Running Google Voice exclusively is like living in a tiny Android bubble in an iPhone world. Text messages can take multiple taps to be marked as read, the app launches slowly and occasionally will hang or crash completely, and, as a rule, things are just less pretty, responsive, and well thought out. Again, it’s not bad, it’s just … less good.

Yep, you’re still using minutes from AT&T. If you thought you could get away with some kind of data + wi-fi only VoIP experience, we’re not there yet. Google Voice uses your cell phone provider’s minutes. It’s not so much a bug as it is a missing feature. As far as I know, you still need a voice plan from AT&T just to get data, so there are problems with that approach on both ends of the spectrum.

The voice menu dark ages. Call screening is a nice feature, but activating it with a voice menu is a frustrating step backwards. First, when you receive a call, you either you get a real number (but don’t know they’re calling your Google Voice number) or you get your Google Voice number (and don’t know who’s calling). Next, when you answer the call, you need to hit 1 to accept the call or another arbitrary number to initiate one of the remaining features. You know what would be nice? Programmable software buttons.

Outgoing calls appear in normal Phone app as strange numbers. If you’re not ready to commit to a monogamous Google Voice relationship, using the Phone app is going to leave you squinting at various Google intermediate numbers used to connect you to your eventual destination when you make calls through Google Voice. It’s an annoyance that you can either live with or switch to Google Voice completely. For my part, I might just be ready to go Google 24/7, which seems like as good a reason as any to embark on a tour of Google Voice’s advantages today and potential advantages over the next few years.

I’m ready. Tell me why I should love Google Voice.

Okay, I mentioned the unlimited free texting, right? Give your Google Voice number to your friends, and cancel that ridiculous $20 per month AT&T text plan. I expect this notion of separate charges for text, voice, and data eventually to be forgotten like a bad dream, but we’re still living it right now. Until AT&T and Co. wake up, grab a Google Voice number and enjoy a few extra apps per month or whatever it is you want to do with your newly-found discretionary income.

Enhanced call control. With Google Voice, you get a virtual secretary to filter your calls, asking each unknown caller his or her name, ability to enforce Do Not Disturb hours, and handful of ways to be notified of missed calls and voicemails. For me, these features are useful, but I’m more excited about what might be as the technology matures than I am about the current crop. The only one useful to me today is call screening for unknown numbers.

Text or call from anywhere. Wrap Google Voice in a Fluid app, and, voilà, you are now texting via a dedicated desktop client. As someone who enjoyed connecting his AIM handle to his cell phone number, I can tell you that typing a message on a computer keyboard and having it land in someone’s SMS inbox is not only magical, it’s, uh, a whole lot easier.

Potential Advantages.

The big wins today are free texting, the ability to interact with your Google Voice number and history anywhere via the browser, and a smattering of additional call filters. For me, those are enough to warrant re-structuring my phone usage to make Google Voice primary. If you’re still on the fence though, watch for these features. I can’t promise they are coming, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

  • VoIP. Right now, Google Voice is no phone, no calls. Competing with Skype by allowing calls using the Internet rather than the cell tower seems a given someday. With Google Talk already in the fold, it’s presumably a business question and not a technology one.2 Update: Lex reminds me you can already make Google Voice calls without using minutes, just not through the Google Voice site. You’ll need to install this plug-in and use Gmail.
  • Useful call and voicemail transcripts. Advertised as a feature, transcripts are more of a joke. Getting every third word correct is a recipe for disaster. If the technology can improve, though, I see a lot of utility in archived transcriptions.
  • The coup de grâce for me would be the ability to add multiple Google Voice lines per account, thereby enabling separate personal and business lines.

The iPhone and Google Voice. A Reasonably Happy Marriage.

All is not connubial bliss between Google Voice and the iPhone. There are hiccups. Application oddities, service failures, unfulfilled desires, and latent fears. Yet with a native application capable of push notifications, Google Voice is a real alternative to AT&T’s onerous texting fees. It’s a powerful tool; one which has the potential to finally crack the gouging cell phone oligopoly. For that, and a few extra bucks in my pocket each month, I’m willing to take a chance on Google Voice.3

  1. This pretty much defines the Apple v. Google dynamic. It’s tempting to imagine Google’s fully-featured, cloud-first mentality with Apple’s design chops. I’m not sure we’ll ever get that exquisite combination, but both appear to be making in-roads into the other’s territory. []
  2. Though, one wonders, if Apple might not play games again with the approval process. One never knows. []
  3. Just know that I’m fickle and could switch back to an all-Apple experience just as quickly. []

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