Elgan: Why Google Voice is free

It's all about contextual advertising

Google Voice means Google is technically, literally and actually a telephone company. Google owns and maintains the servers, switches and other equipment necessary to connect phone calls. They're regulated just like any other telephone company. And they're connected into, and are part of, the national telephone network.

The difference is, the company is giving many Google Voice services away for free, rather than charging for them. Why?

What you can do with Google Voice

Google Voice is one of the coolest, most useful new services to come out in a long time. It's especially great for digital nomad types and business people who are already heavy users of the telephone. Note that Google is slowly rolling out the service, and it's currently offered by invitation only. Go here to get in line for an invite.

The main use of Google Voice is that all your phones -- work and personal, landline and mobile -- are connected. These connections are managed under your regular Google (Gmail) username and password. Google gives you a new telephone number, and all phones are reachable via that number.

You can choose exactly which of your phones ring for each caller. For example, if your spouse calls, it can ring all phones. If your boss calls, just your work landline rings. And, of course, if the IRS calls, it can ring none of your phones! Google Voice has a "Spam" function that automatically blocks sales calls. A block caller" feature lies for you, playing the "number has been disconnected or is no longer in service" message for any phone number you specify.

Google Voice enables you to listen while a caller is leaving a voicemail, just like an answering machine does. You can record a custom voicemail greeting for groups, or even for individuals. Google Voice lets you check voicemail from any of the phones you've authorized. You can also check via "visual voicemail," which looks like e-mail. Voicemails are transcribed by default, so you can read them rather than listen to them if you like. You can choose to get your voicemails as SMS or e-mails, and can even reply via SMS.

During a call, just push a button to add new callers to existing conversations. Push another to actually record incoming calls (it notifies the caller that the recording feature is on). Google Voice lets you e-mail the recording to yourself, download it as an MP3 file or even embed it into a Web page. Google Voice will probably grow virally as bloggers embed recorded telephone interviews into their blogs.

Google Voice is cool, but it's not perfect. Users report issues with the SMS feature. (In my experience, SMS on the Web never works right.) Other features are less than perfectly reliable also. Users have reported a wide range of small problems doing things like deleting voicemail and the slow delivery of transcriptions. Google publishes a list of known issues.

Another problem is with the phone numbers. Most people don't want to give up their existing number. Google hopes to allow users to port their current numbers in the future. Caller ID and SMS identification from Google Voice users can be problematic. If someone , for example, sends you an SMS or calls one of your numbers, the return SMS or call shows your Google virtual number. People have been struggling with this.

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