Google answers the call again

“We’re sorry, the party you are calling cannot be reached. At the tone, please leave a message. After you are done, stop speaking, then hang up, or press: Pound. To leave a callback number: Press. Five. To page this person: Press. Seven. At the tone, Eastern Standard Time Will Be: Eight. Forty. Five. And. Nine. Seconds. Now please: Listen. To. The. Party’s. Voicemail. Message. Thank you. (Beep.)” (OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but just barely.)

Sound familiar? If so, you’re probably like most cellphone-wielding Americans. Make you want to tear your hair out? You’re not alone. But have no fear: Google’s just entered the calling and voicemail market, with a beta caveat and pricetag of “free,” as usual, and they’re set to do to it the same thing Gmail did to web-based email providers and that Google itself did to search engines. First we had Google SMS. Then we had GOOG-411. Now we have Google Voice. The best way to experience Google Voice is to try it out yourself (invitation from Google required), but while you’re waiting for your invitation to join, we’ll break down just a few of the reasons that make those of us in the IT Department at OSCPA love it.

Where do you want to call from?

The fun starts at the registration page. Chances are, when you got your cell phone from $carrier (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, etc. — pick your favorite), they gave you a random phone number, or at the very least, didn’t give you much say in what it was. Not so with Google Voice. While at the moment Google doesn’t allow you to transfer your current phone number to the service, they make up for this by letting you search for a number you want. That’s right: if you want a phone number in New York that contains the word “CODE,” you can do that (if one is available). If you want a number anywhere that has a “1776,” you can do that, too. Or if you’d just prefer to appear to be calling from Hawaii, Google’s got you covered (that would be area code 808, if you’re wondering).

Back to basics

Google, of course, offers all the “basic” features you would expect, all done with their traditional style and simplicity. When people call your Google Voice number, it will forward the call to any number of your choosing. In fact, it will forward it to as many different numbers of your choosing as you like, all at the same time, and it can be programmed to ring different phones depending on who’s calling. You can also choose to block certain people altogether, send some callers straight to voicemail, or even mark particularly annoying callers as spam (rumor has it that they receive a fictitious “number disconnected” message — at last, some competition for the TeleZapper). You can also require callers to say their name first (Google will ask you when you answer whether or not you want to take their call), particularly useful for numbers you don’t recognize. And you can set up several different voicemail greetings to play for different people.

For all of these features, you can set your preferences based on individual people or groups of people (e.g., you could decide that callers in the “Family” group ring all your phones, hear “Hi, please leave a message!” as their greeting, and don’t have to say their name first, while those in “Work” ring just your work number, hear “Hello, I’m not here right now, so please leave your name and the best time at which to call you back” as their greeting, and do have to say their name, and those in “Annoying” are just sent straight to voicemail, being told, of course, “I’m sorry, but I will be unavailable for the foreseeable future”).

Also — and this really does merit its own paragraph — Google Voice isn’t annoying. It doesn’t plague you with prerecorded messages telling you that you’re at a voicemail system and so you should leave your name and number after the beep (really, in 2009, does anyone not already know this?) or asking you whether or not you’d like to page the person you called. If you call in to check your voicemail, it doesn’t beat around the bush, telling you that the menus may have changed since yesterday and that you have: Twelve. New. Messages. And, everywhere, the menus are short, simple, and fast. No more waiting for thirty seconds just to hear how to erase a message. This is Google, after all.

Free calls, cheap calls, and call recording

Another great feature, although perhaps not as crucial since most people using Google Voice will probably use it with a mobile phone and not just a land line, is that you can make calls to any (continental) US number for free (caveat being that it still uses your cell phone minutes if you’re not on a land line). And if you’d rather talk to someone in Brazil, Russia, or Germany, you can call them too, and cheaply at that (at the time of writing, $0.04, $0.05, and $0.02 per minute, respectively). Google even gives you $0.10 right off the bat, just for signing up.

We should also mention that you can record calls to listen to later, although at the moment this is restricted only to incoming calls and doesn’t include calls from your Google Voice number as well. So, next time you’re on an important conference call in the middle of driving to the airport, you can focus on traffic instead of finding a pen to write down your hotel’s address.

SMS? Yes

Not limited only to voice, people can send SMS messages to your Google voice number as well, and these will be forward to however many mobile phones you’ve added. You can also send and receive SMS messages via the web interface, and you can save old messages for reference instead of having periodically to erase them as you would on a phone.

Voicemail, part deux

You have no idea how clunky your current voicemail system is until you’ve seen how Google Voice does it. With voicemail from Google, you can listen to your voicemails online, save them to your computer, or embed them on web pages (sounds like a problem waiting to happen), it’s true. Yes, you can even listen to people as they leave you a message to decide whether or not you want to take their call. But Google’s taken it to the next level, because Google Voice can also automatically transcribe your voicemails to text, send them to you via SMS and email, and let you store, search, and annotate them online in a Gmail-like interface. While not perfect (the transcription is sometimes a little off, but still amazing for a computerized service), this feature is probably the best part of Google Voice, and you really have to see it to appreciate it.

Do you like your carrier’s features? Then stick with them. In the meantime, we’ll be using Google Voice.