Google tools help small firms take on the big players

After just over a year as a coveted, invitation-only beta, Google has officially launched Google Voice as a free service for all U.S. citizens.

Google Voice adds another component to the suite of tools available from Google providing small and medium businesses with cost-effective tools enabling them to conduct business like their much larger enterprise counterparts.

Large enterprises have the budget to invest in a robust networking, communication, and productivity infrastructure.

Enterprise businesses also have the personnel resources to dedicate the expertise necessary to implement, maintain, and administer the tools.

Small and medium businesses? Not so much.

Unfortunately for the small and medium businesses (SMB), though, they still have the same needs and similar business processes.

They still need to communicate and collaborate in real-time with peers, partners, and customers.

Fortunately for SMBs, Google provides a diverse portfolio of tools that are free, or at least reasonably cost-effective, which allow them to appear much larger than they are, and compete on a level playing field with much larger competitors. Just look at the suite of tools available from Google: Google Voice, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Buzz, Google Wave, Gdrive.

Combining these tools together, SMBs can create a comprehensive messaging, communication, and collaboration infrastructure comparable to enterprise-grade unified communications solutions requiring significant investment of financial and personnel resources.

Google has a diverse and comprehensive portfolio to meet the needs of most SMBs.

There are two major issues with Google Voice, though, that Google will hopefully address at some point.

First, SMBs that have an established presence have already built a reputation and developed recognition based on their phone number. Google Voice right now does not allow numbers to be ported, forcing SMBs to adopt a new Google Voice number.

Second, the voicemail to e-mail transcription is inadequate–and that is putting it mildly.

My experience with the e-mail transcriptions I have received has been that they are completely useless in actually conveying whatever the caller said when the message was left. They do, however, make for a good drinking game if you want to try to guess what the real words are.

Google has an opportunity to make Google Voice even better, though, and improve the entire Google SMB offering at the same time.

It is reasonable to expect that Google will integrate Google Voice more tightly into the Google Apps infrastructure–delivering even more enterprise-grade unified communications functionality.

Google can also extend the presence of Google Voice and go head to head with Skype by incorporating functionality from its purchase of Gizmo5 last year. Google can provide Web-based VoIP service that will provide a fairly universal, cross-platform solution.

Google’s products and solutions aren’t perfect, and they may not work for all businesses.

However, the price is right, and Google has earned a degree of respect in the business community, so SMBs should definitely examine how Google tools like Google Voice can be put to use.

Google Voice

What follows is a look at the key features of Google Voice.   

The utility started as an independent service called GrandCentral bought by Google Inc. in 2007 and re-introduced as Google Voice in 2009.

If you already use Google’s Gmail, you should feel right at home here — the interface of Google Voice is very similar to Gmail’s.

Google Voice assigns you a new phone number to link your other phones to. You can also send and receive an unlimited number of SMS text messages through your Google Voice number for free.
Google Voice sports an interface that looks very similar to Gmail’s.

You can record multiple greetings and assign each to play for specific phone numbers that call you — or for groups of phone numbers that you put together via the Google Voice site.

So you can, for example, record a casual personal message for family and friends and a professionally worded one for co-workers. You can also instruct the system to send calls from specific people (or groups of people) directly into voice mail.

Once you have a voice mail, you can arrange to have alerts sent via e-mail or SMS, along with a transcription of the message.

Mobile apps

Google provides apps for Android and BlackBerry phones that you can use to access your Google Voice account.

Owners of other smartphones (including the iPhone) can use the service only through a version of the site formatted for mobile device screens.

On the Droid Eris, the mobile Web page version of Google Voice was simple and rather text-heavy. You can send and receive SMS texts, and listen to your voice mails.

You can even make voice calls through it, but this works the same way that it does through the regular Web site — you click on or enter a phone number, Google Voice calls your cell phone, you answer, then the service calls the number you clicked or entered, and connects you to it.

Google Voice sample transcription

The original:

Hello. I called to leave this message to test the transcription feature of this Web-based voice mail service. This service can take the recorded words spoken by a caller and convert them into text, doing so automatically.

The transcription:

Hello, I called to leave this message to test the transcription feature of this webpage voice mail service. The service to take the reported work spoke about a caller convert them into text to install automatically.

On the other hand, the free Android app for Google Voice integrated seamlessly with the Droid Eris, so I could use the phone’s own dialer to make voice calls through my Google Voice account.

The sound quality of calls made through the mobile-formatted site or the Android app was very good and virtually indistinguishable from a normal cell phone call.

Making calls

There is an added attraction: You can make calls through Google Voice by clicking on the number you want to call from your Google contact list (or you can enter the number manually).

Google Voice first calls whichever phone that you have linked to your user account; after you pick up, the service then dials the number you want to reach. U.S. domestic calls are free, while international calls start at 2 cents per minute to most countries, which is roughly comparable to what it would cost using Skype.

In fact, Google’s purchase of Gizmo5 , a VoIP service that rivals Skype, in November 2009 probably means Google will soon add Gizmo5’s VoIP technology to Google Voice.

The sound quality of calls using Google Voice was better than what I’ve gotten from some cell phone companies. (The quality of each call depends on many factors, of course, including the provider’s network technology, their coverage area and the model and type of phone you use.)

Bottom line

Google Voice (nee GrandCentral) pioneered the Web voice mail market and is still a solid and reliable service. Its current version doesn’t let you make calls directly through your computer — but this limitation is sure to change if Google incorporates its recently acquired VoIP technology into Google Voice.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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