After weeks of anticipation, Google is finally accepting a limited number of new users into its Google Voice phone system.
Google Voice allows you to unite all of your phones under a single number and then use a powerful set of controls to determine how calls are handled.
It packs plenty of other impressive functionality, too, including voicemail-to-text transcribing and advanced call-screening.
At the same time, though, adopting Google Voice as your communications commander introduces some potential negatives, ranging from privacy-related concerns to questions about reliability.
Here’s a breakdown of five pros and five cons to help you determine whether the service is right for you.
Google Voice: 5 Reasons to Use It
1. Routing power
Google Voice eliminates the problem of having multiple numbers for multiple purposes. Once you sign up and receive a phone number, you input all of your existing numbers–your cell phone, work phone, home phone, and anything else–into the control panel.
Then, when you receive a call, all of your phones will ring (or a smaller subset, if you choose), and you can answer on whichever one is most convenient at the time.
The true power, though, comes with Google Voice’s advanced routing options. You can set your preferences so that certain calls will ring only certain phones.
If, for example, you wanted your spouse’s calls to go straight through to your cell phone, or your mother’s calls to ring only on your home phone, you could make those specifications. You could even set certain callers to be routed directly into your voicemail.
2. Screening power
Once a call comes through, you have a whole new set of options. When you pick up the call, and while the caller still hears ringing, you’ll be presented with the person’s name and four options: answer the call, send it to voicemail, send it to voicemail and listen in live, or answer and record the call.
Google Voice uses information from your address book to tell you who’s calling. If the caller isn’t in your contacts list, Google Voice can ask for their name and play it back for you when you pick up.
3. Voicemail power
As mentioned above, Google Voice’s voicemail system allows you to listen in while someone is recording a message. If you decide to pick up midmessage, you simply press the star key and begin talking.
Google Voice’s voicemail is fully accessible over the Web, too: You can listen to voicemail online, forward voice messages to other users, and even embed them on other Web sites. Google Voice also offers text transcriptions of your voice messages and the ability to receive them via e-mail or text message.
4. SMS power
SMS is fully integrated into Google Voice. If someone sends a message to your Google number, the service will route it to any mobile phones you have connected. You can reply to text messages from any phone as well, or via the Google Voice Web interface.
Google Voice can also store all of your text messages within its Web interface for permanent archiving. That means every text you’ve ever sent or received can be filed, searched, and kept forever–as if it were e-mail.
Like Gmail, the Google Voice Web system displays back-and-forth messages as conversations to make following dialogues easier.
5. Midcall power
Google Voice gives you added power while you’re in the middle of a call, too. You can start and stop recording calls with the touch of a single button, and then access those recordings online.
You can also switch phones without having to interrupt the call: You simply press the star key while talking, and your other connected phones will begin to ring. At that point, you can pick any of them up, hang the original phone up, and go about your conversation as if nothing had happened.
Next: Google Voice: 5 Reasons to Think Twice
Google Voice: 5 Reasons to Think Twice
As is the case with many Google products, privacy is a hot topic within discussions of Google Voice. By using Google Voice to control all of your phone activity, you’re exposing a vast amount of personal information to Google.
Everything from whom you call to what you discuss–yes, even in hazy late-night text messages you yourself may not remember–is stored on Google’s servers. Together with the other various data Google may have on you, all of that could create quite a portfolio.
Still, the data is in someone else’s hands, and it could be used for certain purposes outside of your own personal perusal. Some privacy advocates have expressed concerns that Google Voice may lead to “increased profiling and tracking of users without safeguards.” Whether that’s a problem is largely up to you, and how comfortable you feel with the situation.
As of now, Google Voice is completely cost-free and ad-free. The ad-free part could easily change, however.
Just this week, one analyst told the New York Times that he expected Google to use the system to “help accelerate [its] mobile penetration by creating a larger mobile ecosystem against which Google can sell/target/monetize advertisements.”
What’s more, the fact that Google has so much of your information could play a key role in any future monetization plan: Much as Gmail has used content from your messages to determine what ads show on the page, Google Voice could use data about your calling habits or the content of your texts to customize ads within the service.
We like to think that Google will never fail us–but the fact is, technology is fallible, and things do go wrong. The world has certainly seen plenty of Google-related service outages over the years, including one last month that took almost all Google products offline for a large number of users.
It’s frustrating to be unable to access your e-mail or RSS feeds; but for many people, the risk of not being able to receive any calls or text messages may be far more troubling.
So what if Google Voice does go down? Even if it’s a rare occasion, are you okay with it? The idea isn’t completely far-fetched: During last month’s Google outage, some users who were a part of early Google Voice testing say that their Google number did stop working. “My wife called my number and actually got through to a stranger,” one user told xconomy.com. “This has got to NEVER happen again.”
Other users have reported some less extreme problems using the service, such as failed call recordings and other similar issues. All of that is important to consider before you commit to depending entirely on any new system.
4. Caller ID confusion
If you start using a Google Voice number as your primary number, be prepared for the fact that regular calls from your cell phone (or any other phone) will still show up as your old number. This may create confusion, as the number you give out won’t match the number from which you actually call.
Notably, the service does offer a way to make calls that will show as coming from the Google Voice number: You can go through the Web interface and type in a number, and then have Google dial you to begin the call; or you can dial your Google Voice number directly and then place the call through it. Regardless, it’s an extra step that could prove to be cumbersome.
5. Number-changing hassle
Aside from the caller ID confusion, you’ll have to get people to start reaching you at a new number. Particularly with the often-permanent nature of cell phone numbers nowadays, that may prove to be easier said than done.
You might have to reprint business cards or stationery, and you’d have to take the time to update your information anywhere you have a registered account (the cable company, doctors’ offices, and so on).
Google says it hopes to offer the option to port an existing number into Google Voice in the future. That capability, if and when it’s introduced, would cut down on some of the hassle. Until it is introduced, though, be sure to think carefully about what’s involved before you decide to make the move to the new service.
So there you have it: ample food for thought as you determine whether Google Voice is right for you. Of course, you still have to get an official Google invitation first. Gauging by the number of people who signed up, that could take a while — so you probably have plenty of time to think.
Connect with JR Raphael on Twitter (@jr_raphael) or via his Web site, jrstart.com.