Google acquired Grand Central and turned it into Google Voice in the spring of 2009. At that time, I was a sales representative for a major U.S. wireless carrier. I won’t give you their name but let’s say that they are “Big” and they are “Red.” We’ll leave it at that. As a wireless phone rep, I was constantly switching between demo devices and changing numbers. I was also upgrading my personal phone every 6-12 months. All of this device swapping gets frustrating because I would have to continually update friends and family members with my new contact information. Sending out mass text messages like “Hey, this is Jeremiah. I have a new number AGAIN” gets old for the person reading the message and the person sending it. I was tired of that problem and went looking for a solution. In the summer of 2009, I found my answer in the form of Google Voice. The service was new and buggy, but it offered a convenient way to get one number and keep it, presumably forever. With one final “I changed my number” text message, I could make my life easier and stop bugging my friends and family every 3-4 months. No more number swapping.
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Google Voice started out as a convenient service with a few bugs that needed to be ironed out. 4 years later, nothing has changed.
Don’t get me wrong. Google Voice has, overall, been good to me. And the service doesn’t cost me any money. A similar, integrated-numbers-voice-messaging-transcription type service would cost thousands of dollars to design and implement myself. Google Voice offers a lot, and like other Google services, only requires you to view basic ads in the sidebar as payment. I was elated when I got my Voice invite. The simple ability of sending and receiving text messages from my web browser added so much convenience to my life. Being able to set up call routing and forwarding from one central phone number solved my revolving-device issue. Services like call-blocking and call-screening were something that my wireless carrier charged to implement. Google Voice, again, didn’t cost me a penny. Same with voicemail transcription. My carrier charged for it, Google offered it for free. Plus, Google’s voicemail transcription was hilarious.
The inaccuracy of Google Voice transcription is well documented. Some users find it infuriating. I don’t mind it so much, mostly because I can pull up the Google Voice website and listen to the voicemail on my computer speakers. You see, Google Voice solved another issue for me. I hate holding a phone to my head. I prefer messaging, be it SMS or Hangouts over having a voice conversation. Just my personal preference. Now, with Voice, I didn’t even have to hold the phone up to my ear to listen to a voicemail.
Google Voice was a fantastic find for me. The features that it offered were just right for me. I didn’t mind the occasional hiccup that came along. Sometimes, when I was forced to place an outgoing call, a connection couldn’t be established. No big deal, I’ll just place the call again. Occasionally there would be a significant lag during a phone conversation. The delay on voice calls was annoying, but I didn’t mind so much because it was an excuse to hang up the phone and send a message instead. The Google Voice service was still in beta, bugs were to be expected. Overall, things were great for me. Other users seemed happy, or at least were able to tolerate the bugs and hiccups while Google ironed them out. Once Voice was working flawlessly, oh boy. What a great service this was going to be. And then…nothing really changed.
Oh, I guess little things changed. Google added a few more special routing numbers so calls did not fail to connect as often as they once had. It still happened, but it happened less. The instances of voice delay on calls seemed to decrease, or at least the length of the delay seemed to decrease. Instead of 3-4 seconds of voice delay when on a call when I first started using Voice, now it was 1 second. Maybe only ½ second. The delay was still noticeable at times, but it was less annoying. Other promised improvements simply failed to materialize. Google Voice still does not support multimedia messaging fully. Sure, Sprint users can use MMS like normal, but this is a function that should be available to everyone. Other, more one-off type annoyances continue to pop-up, documented in Google’s forums. The issue isn’t that things aren’t progressing as quickly as users want them to; it’s that Google seems to have stopped work on Voice altogether.
This is not the first time we have voiced concern over Google’s seeming lack of attention to the Voice service. It probably won’t be the last. But there is good reason for users to be asking questions. Google is focused on providing great services that users want. This is the company that brought us Google Now and is rolling out 1 Gbps internet speeds with Google Fiber. That’s the only way that they can continue to generate the ad revenues that they’ve enjoyed for the past decade. Google Voice is not a great service anymore. It was never a truly great service, but its beta tag and the Google’s lack of experience in this area were enough to overlook the bugs for awhile. We’re now over 4 years in to Google Voice, and development looks like it’s come to screeching halt.
This may simply be a situation like Google Talk, where users were clamoring for missing features, only to find out that Google halted work on Talk to develop Hangouts. Hangouts now offers just about everything that gTalk users wanted. We could be looking at something similar with Voice. There were early rumors that Google was going to integrate Voice in to Hangouts and finally offer a compelling, all-encompassing messaging platform. That hasn’t happened yet, but that integration is not off the table. Even if Voice isn’t rolled in to Hangouts, Google may be working on a Voice redesign or even a whole new Voice app and service, with the intent of scrapping the current offering once the new one is completed. Either way, it’s well past time for Google to do something with the flagging Google Voice service.
I know I’m not alone in wanting to see Voice pulled off the shelf and put back in to active development. Google needs to bring Voice back in to focus. First, we want to have the bugs fixed. Prompt delivery of text and voice messages, low-latency on voice calls, and the addition of MMS support should be the basic foundation of Voice. Beyond that, who knows. The executives up in Mountain View obviously thought that Grand Central could be turned in to a ground-breaking, industry-shifting communications tool. Now they need to make it happen.