By Scott Jacobs

googlevoiceLeave it to Google to kill off the telephone. Herein and ever after, let’s call that device you hold in your hand a receptacle for voice communication. You may call it an iPhone, a Blackberry, a handset, or whatever you want. It’s toast. The era when that appliance was the gateway to America’s vast network of telephone wires and wireless towers (and the power to charge for that access) is coming to an end.

Hastening its demise is the arrival in Beta testing of Google Voice, a clever telephone answering system that has the potential to transfer many of the functions telephone carriers charge an arm and a leg for (voice minutes, text messages, voicemail, conference calling) to Google’s servers, where customers can access them all – free (*see below).

The premise behind Google Voice is simple: Pick a telephone number. Any telephone number. (Eventually, even your current telephone number.) Anytime anyone calls you on it, three things happen:

1)    It simultaneously rings through to all your home, office and mobile telephones.

2)    If you want to screen calls, or block telemarketers, a “presentation message” plays that requires the caller to state his name so you can decide whether to take it or send it to voicemail.

3)    If the caller does leave a message, the voice message and a transcribed version appear in your email where, at the click of a button, you can text or call back free.

A Killer App

The marketing slogan for Google Voice is “one phone number for all your phones, for life.” For the moment, Google insists the aim is to manage your existing network of phones, not replace them. Phone calls enter and leave Google servers through voice routers, incurring the usual voice minute charges. Text messages, however, travel over the data stream. As Voice over the Internet Protocol (VoIP) improves––the technology behind Internet phone services like Skype––phone calls will as well, and this makes Google Voice, with its many cool features, a killer app.

If you have a BlackBerry or a T-mobile phone that uses Google’s Android mobile operating system, there is already a mobile app for using Google Voice on your cell phone.  If you have an iPhone, however, you are SOL because, as you may have read recently, Apple has banned the Google Voice app, largely to assuage its exclusive telecommunications partner AT&T, which stands to lose billions if the application becomes popular.

This is one reason Google CEO Eric Schmidt resigned from the Apple board of directors last month, and why the FCC three weeks ago asked Google, Apple and AT&T to file formal papers Friday outlining their position on how Google Voice will affect the telecommunications marketplace.

Rough Seas for AT&T

The mobile phone market is the fastest growing segment of the telecommunications industry. The New York Times estimates it is a $178 billion business rapidly on its way to reaching $300 billion. If Google Voice can be brought up to its full potential, the outlook for AT&T and all the other telecommunications companies is not good. AT&T still charges for incoming as well as outgoing calls. (U.S. Cellular, Sprint and T-Mobile do not.) As Google perfects its ability to deliver Google Voice calls using only the data stream, AT&T’s ability to run up minutes and text message charges will be severely curtailed.

A typical iPhone plan, for instance, comes with a variety of monthly fee options:

1)    Voice (450 minutes – unlimited usage): ($40 – $100)

2)    Data Plan (an Internet connection): $30 fixed

3)    Text messaging (200 – unlimited): $ 5 – $20, or 20 cents a message

Among my friends, most opt for plans that run $70 to $100 a month. Without too much tweaking––remember, this is still in a Beta stage––Google Voice could save them and other customers more than 50% on their monthly bills.

Google Voice can provide these savings because Google does not own or maintain any telephone lines or mobile towers. Everything Google Voice does piggybacks off existing voice or data lines. (AT&T no doubt will argue this gives it an unfair competitive advantage.) What Google provides is the software switching for calls, storage for phone messages, and many clever features: all the bells and whistles of modern day telephony without any of the heavy lifting.

Other Features

The VoIP connections can sometimes be flaky. Google Voice works better on a land line next to your computer than on a mobile phone sailing down an expressway at 60 miles per hour. But the transcribed voicemails (updated just last week to include punctuation) are very cool.

The presentation message can be switched off so there is no telltale sign you are screening calls. If you are talking on your cell and walk into your house, you can switch the call to your home phone with the press of a button.

You can also make conference calls linking up to six participants, dialing out to each participant one at a time, pressing a button, then dialing out to the next. And you can record different voice message greetings for different phone number groups (friends, family, business contacts, etc.) –– or individual numbers. As you might expect, Google Voice allows you to import and choose these from your gmail contact list (or Outlook, Yahoo, Palm and others in a .CVS or vCard format).

If, for instance, you never want to talk to your ex-wife, you can record a greeting just for her: “Hello, you’ve reached the voicemail of Scott Jacobs. He’s dead. Have a nice day.” Or tell selected friends something you want only them to hear:  “I skipped work this afternoon to go to the Sox game. Meet me under the scoreboard at the seventh inning stretch.”

You can also use the spam blocking option to screen out telemarketers. One standard response recently added allows you to give telemarketers or others the familiar  “ . . . the number you have called is not in service”.

The free calls and text messages are limited to the United States. But international calling is also available at modest rates. Paris, London, Mexico City are two cents a minute: Tokyo is three.  Want to call relatives in Uzbekistan? Nine cents a minute.

Not For Everyone . . . Yet

The rollout of Google Voice has been very deliberate. The application is based software designed by a company named GrandCentral that Google purchased in 2007 for $95 million. Last March, Google renamed the application Google Voice, adding the transcription feature, and announced a Beta test later in the summer. On July 27, viewers of NBC’s Today Show were told the test was now ready to go. Google was flooded with applications. How many users are now on the system remains a corporate secret, but the waiting list is said to be hundreds of thousands of applicants.

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