Google makes headlines if it sneezes, so it isn't surprising that the company's latest announcement, a revision of a Web app called GrandCentral now renamed Google Voice, has caught the attention of the Webverse.
What is it? Google Voice, which is currently available only to former GrandCentral customers, is a free Web-based application that lets you control all your various phone numbers -- work, home, mobile, you name it -- from a single, central phone number. And it adds most of the features of a PBX -- call forwarding, voice mail, call recording -- for free.
How does it work? The first thing you'll need to do is set up your own phone number. You can use any area code; I made mine a local number in an area code where I have a lot of friends and family.
That's pretty much it for the basic setup. With that number, you can access the kind of advanced features that would normally require either paying fees to your local phone company or setting up your own office PBX. For example, you can forward calls to up to six other phones, make free text messages and U.S. phone calls, take voice mail messages and set up four-person conference calls.
You can also make calls using the Google/Gmail phone directory. And you can record incoming calls with a press of a button. This last feature is killer for me as a journalist -- Google, if you can just let me do that with outgoing calls too, I'll be your buddy for life.
Another killer feature: You can set up Google Voice so that it automatically filters your calls and routes them to different phones. When my daughter calls, every phone I've got rings. If someone I don't know gives me a buzz, they automatically get sent to voice mail. If someone from work calls, my work and business cell phones ring, but my home phone stays silent.
But here's my favorite: Google Voice transcribes my voice mail and sends me the transcript via e-mail. I'd say that it delivered with about 90% accuracy -- I've paid money for worse. With this, I'll never need to check voice mail again; I can either just read it from my e-mail box or listen to it over the Web. I love this feature.
What's cool about it? This product gives you the type of control over your communications that can make your life incredibly easier, especially if you're running your own business (which a lot of us are these days).
What needs to be fixed? There are some features that could still use a bit of tweaking. For example, while I'm able to sort my phone connections into family, friends and workgroups, the program is still a little confusing when it comes to assigning people to each group. And the voice mail transcription isn't perfect. But hey, let's get real -- I just want something that will let me know who called me, when and what number they left for me to call them back at.
There's been a lot of privacy panic over Google Voice, but I don't see it. You can pull out more information from any active Facebook user's account than you can from Google Voice. What I see is a killer, do-it-all phone app.
Final verdict: Google Voice is, as far as I'm concerned, a great application. It makes managing my phone calls much easier, and it's free. What's not to like?
You'll get to decide for yourself in a few weeks when Google opens it up to everyone. I'm already sure, though, that you're going to like Google Voice a lot. It's that good.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at email@example.com.