Google Voice: The Web's best free voice app

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I hate the telephone. I hate being interrupted when I'm in the middle of writing. I can't stand mobile phones, although I use them, and I've gotten sick and tired of buying both new land line and mobile phones every other year. Those are some of the reasons why I think Google releasing Google Voice for everyone -- well, everyone in the U.S. -- is great news.

It's also great news for anyone who wants free -- that's free as in beer -- control of their telephone communications. Google Voice is a free Web-based application that gives you control over all your various phone numbers -- work, home, mobile, you name it -- from a single, central phone number. And it includes most of the features of a PBX (Private Branch Exchange): call forwarding, voice mail, call recording.

I've been lucky enough to be using Google Voice for over a year, and I'm thrilled it's now available to more people. I've wanted to get my friends on it ever since I first used it; now I can.

So how does Google Voice work? First, you sign up for a Google Voice account, which is just like signing up for any other Google application. The, you pick out your phone number. If you like, you can also just use one of your existing numbers for Google Voice. If you go with a new number, you can use any U.S. area code. I put mine in an area code where I have many friends and family. With this number, I 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.

I can also set up my own call forwarding rules. So, for example, if my wife calls, her call will ring all my phone numbers. If someone who I don't know calls, they get dumped into voicemail. You can also create groups -- family, friends, co-workers -- and set rules for them as well.

Better still from where I sit, I don't have to listen to some garbage call. Google can automatically transcribe messages and send them to my Gmail account. These transcriptions are, to be honest, frequently awful. The way that Google Voice mangles names is truly wondrous to behold. My last name, for example, usually comes out as 'Von Nickels.' Still, the voice transcription is good enough to make sense of messages.

On the flip side, I can also "call" from any of my numbers using Google Voice. So I can call from my work number, even if I'm sitting at a local coffee shop and I'm using my mobile phone.

There are plenty of other nice features. For example, I can send text messages free of charge. When someone texts me at my Google Voice number, it will notify me either on my Android phone or by e-mail, and I can then read the message and reply within Google Voice. Unfortunately, if you're using an iPhone, Apple won't let you use the Google Voice application. Instead, you have to go through the Web site, which is not as fully featured or as easy to use as the smartphone application.

You can also automatically receive and reply to text messages by e-mail. Since I use e-mail and IM (instant messaging) more than I text, this can be darn handy.

The only thing that Google Voice really lacks, as I see it, is, oddly enough, voice. It's not a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) application like Skype. If Google Voice had VoIP functionality, I could see giving up all my other phones for it.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the privacy concerns over Google Voice. I quote from the Google Privacy policies: "Google's servers also automatically collect telephony log information (including calling-party number, forwarding numbers, time and date of calls, duration of calls, SMS routing information, and types of calls)." I can live with that, but you might not be so comfortable with this policy.

For me, Google Voice isn't just a great free voice app; it's one of the best free apps of any kind on the Internet. What do you think? Drop me a note -- even with Google Voice, I still don't like phone calls -- and let me know.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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