Hands-on with the new Google Voice mobile app

Google Voice is a service that simplifies connecting with multiple phones. It gives you a single phone number that rings your home phone, cell phone, office phone -- however many phones you have. It's also a simple tool for managing voice messages. Now, Google Voice has a Web app that simplifies accessing the service on an iPhone or Palm WebOS device. The new app works very well.

To run the app, just go to m.google.com/voice in your mobile Web browser. Nothing to download and install. You need to be a user of Google Voice to run it, of course.

I tried it on my iPhone 3G. When I visited the Google Voice mobile page, the software automatically recognized that I was already logged in to Google, and asked me which phone I was using.

Google Voice setup

I tapped the selection for my iPhone, and the browser showed me a fully functional phone dialpad.

Google_voice_main_screen.jpg

You can tap numbers to dial, or spell out the name of a contact. Alternately, you can access your Google Voice address book by tapping the appropriate icon at the top of the screen.

One particularly impressive feature is that the tool generates its own list of your favorite numbers, which it calls "Top." For me, the "Top" list includes our favorite pizza place and Mediterranean restaurant. These numbers are ranked higher than my brothers' phones. And The Top list doesn't include my wife's phone number at all. I find all of this this deeply disturbing.

Google Voice directory

I've blotted out personal information in the screenshots; unfortunately that makes a couple of them look like the FBI files on Marilyn Monroe. Can't be helped.

When you dial a number from Google Voice mobile, it first tells your iPhone to dial a local number for Google Voice, and then Google Voice connects to the recipient. That's a little more convenient than the way Google Voice works from your desktop -- and the way it used to work from the iPhone -- which is that it dials your phone first, and then, when you pick up, it dials the person you're calling. Under the old system, your phone rang when you placed a call, which was mildly annoying. The new system fixes that problem. Neat.

The downside of the new system is that you're still using voice minutes from your cell provider to make calls. And you can't use Google Voice with an iPod touch, or an iPhone without a cell plan.

Because the call is coming from Google Voice, the recipient's Caller ID shows your Google Voice number rather than your cell phone number. That's important to those of us who want to route all our incoming calls through Google Voice; it's better if the people you call never see any numbers for you other than your Google Voice number.

The new way of calling is slightly confusing at first, though. When you tap the button to place a call, the iPhone displays a pop-up asking for permission to place the call. The number it shows is not the number you asked to dial, which is confusing at first, but after a couple of uses you'll figure it out.

Google Voice makes a call

You can use the application to compose, send and receive SMS messages for free.

Google Voice SMS screen.

The application dials calls in the US for free, and dials international calls at Google's low rates. It also displays transcribed voicemail messages, using Google Voice's enjoyably inaccurate transcription service. The application also lets you view your call history, and listen to voicemail messages using the mobile browser's built-in support for QuickTime.

I found the application fast and responsive. Unfortunately, I could not say the same for two third-party iPhone Google Voice apps which were available last year; I found those sluggish. Calls on the new application were clear and reliable, same as with Google Voice through any other channel. However, it's only been available less than a day as I write this, and I've only used it a few times, so time will tell.

The application's simplicity is its great strength, but the simplicity of the user interface masks underlying complexity. The technology is complex, both the underlying HTML5 code that runs in the browser, and the international network that routes all the phone calls.

And the corporate politics behind Google Voice for the iPhone are complex too, as described by my colleague Juan Carlos Perez. Google and Apple used to be great partners, with Google writing the iPhone's Maps and YouTube apps, and CEO Eric Schmidt sitting on the Apple board. Now, Google has its own, competing smartphone platform, and Schmidt stepped down from the Apple board. Google initially intended to come out with a native iPhone app for Google Voice, but last year, Apple blocked it from the App Store, as well as removing a couple of third-party Google Voice iPhone apps.

These days, Google and Apple are like an estranged married couple that are keeping it together for the children. Any day now, the dishes are going to start flying.

I like the Google Voice mobile app, it's a valued addition to my iPhone's home screens.

Google Voice icon on iPhone home screen

And now for a Google-created instructional video in using the app:

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