The geek in me got carried away. This post is long.
Yesterday, I decided to do a public test of the Google Voice http://www.google.com/voice system. I wanted a decent sample size of messages so I could test the transcription. I posted the number to Twitter and Facebook and set a deadline for responses so I wouldn't be overwhelmed. As I've played them all back, I thought I'd give yall a bit of background on my interest before getting to the results.
First (quickly): Google Voice is the result of the acquisition of GrandCentral, a "single number" service which came out in 2006. You get a new phone number from them and can control how its routed and how it handles messages. Inbound calls can be set to ring many other phones (your cell, home, skype, work), and when you answer, you're prompted by the name of the caller and can decide to a) answer it b) send to voicemail or c) listen in to voicemail (a la answering machines of the 1990s). You get a web console that draws on your gmail contacts and allows you to initiate phone calls from your Google Voice number. That's the basic product.
I'm always pushing the bounds of new technologies and especially communications services. For years, I offered advice to telecom operators and investors as a hard-to-define "strategy consultant." There are five million ways to reach me (and five million ways for me to not get back to you). The first single-number service I tried was uReach http://ureach.com back in 2000. I've dreamed of having a true unified communications tool for at least 9 years and have been hopping around ever since. Skype, Gizmo, voice IM services, CallWave and most recently, SkyDeck. I have personal and professional interests in this quest.
I was one of the first users of the GrandCentral single-number service back in 2006 and even had a long back and forth email exchange with founder and COO Vincent Paquet as I pointed out various shortcomings and necessary features of the service. Here's part of what I wrote on October 22, 2006 (at 3am!):
While I've got your attention, I have two large pieces of feedback around product strategy / capability. The message is long, but I've spent a lot of time thinking about this and hope you'll find it helpful.
The first issue is SMS.
You guys are trying to get users to give out their GC number as the ONLY number. That's fine in a voice-only world, but with SMS there's a problem. If I want people to be able to text me, I HAVE to give them my cell phone number, and texting is a very large part of my communications.
I imagine you could install some sort of inbound SMS-aware gateway which could tell if the "call" was voice, fax or text, then forward appropriately. Inbound SMS would go to my mobile phone, as defined in my settings.
Then you need to solve my response text to that message. If someone texts me at my GC number, it will be confusing for them to get a response from my cell number. So my reply also must go through your gateway.
If you can solve the "SMS hole" then I will be a true fan. Right now, though, I'd have to say I couldn't use GC to its full potential because I'd have to give out two numbers, which defeats your "one number for life" motto.
To quickly expand on the size of this problem, the number I had through GrandCentral was a 646 area code, which is commonly understood to be an NYC mobile prefix. Folks I deal with assume that I text, which is true, but when people sent text messages to my GrandCentral number, those messages went into a black hole. While extremely popular and often more reliable than voice or mobile data connections, SMS usually offers no confirmation of delivery, no feedback whatsoever that your message did or did not go through. You could be texting a dead payphone and not know it.
Vincent wrote me back two hours later (at 5am!) saying they were working on SMS, but in July 2007, they were acquired by Google, and I never saw the feature rolled out... until now. I'm happy to say that people can text my Google Voice number, and I can text back, most importantly, from the same Google Voice number. I can respond via the Google Voice website or my own mobile phone, again, without exposing my true cell phone.
We also had a lengthy exchange about the value of one number vs. multiple numbers (or aliases) that lead to the same end point. I won't provide all that detail here.
While Google was gobbling up GrandCentral, I decided to test two other services that offered some form of voicemail management and unified communications. They both worked off the premise that people didn't want a new phone number; they wanted to manage their existing and often default number: the cell number.
I was an early beta user of CallWave http://callwave.com. You plug in some fancy forwarding codes on your handset, and CallWave becomes the voicemail provider. When folks left you a message, you would get the gist of the message via text (a service they called "VGist") and the full transcript via email. They had a decent transcription service, and allowed you to use a web console to manage/search/archive messages as well as make calls that were bridged to your mobile number. I ditched them late in the Fall, however, due to an infuriating customer service experience.
After CallWave, I moved on to SkyDeck. http://skydeck.com. Their speech-to-text is powered by SpinVox and is hands down the best I've ever used. The web interface, however, is lame, and I think the service costs too much for what I need.
So now that I've established myself as a credible/obsessed user, on to my Google Voice test. I maintained my GrandCentral number as a very public way to reach me. It is listed it on my website, but I had since stopped listing it on my business cards. In fact, I just gave up on the idea and put my cell phone on my cards starting in the summer of 2008 at the DNC. With voicemail transcription offered by CallWave / SkyDeck, that was good enough for the time being, but now Google Voice is back.
Here are some of the voicemail messages I received yesterday along with Google's attempt to transcribe them.
Transcript reads: hey they're trying to reach you know vick just got your facebook in on calling to leave your message there you go bye
Transcript: hey there it's just wanted to call and tell you that you were rock and that's the door hi
Transcript: never got not cathy hawk lady at four forty five central standard time missing out bye
Transcript: this is a test of the better attend a google voice messaging system if this is been an actual message the tell them that i just hardwood avenue followed by something with the this is only a test
Transcript: hi it's sarah calling from california distant you know bother you make sure you have to start okay myself bye
Transcript: alright sunday jemilla day here i guess it's actually let me leave a message i just wanted to be of some assistance to another thinking black person i live in D C N or we can short supply us i hope your day is lovely be well
So I'm going to say right it right now: this sucks. Out of the six messages above, only one of them has what I consider to be usable. And by "usable" I'm looking for a transcript which prevents me from having to listen to the message. That's the point of a transcript right? The SkyDeck service (powered by transcriber SpinVox) is leagues ahead of Google Voice.
By way of comparison, here's a transcript I got a few weeks ago from SkyDeck:
Hey ___, it's [REDACTED]. Sorry I forgot to call you this morning. I'm not gonna be able to make coffee cos we're only just going to lunch now, which means I don't have time to see you after lunch and then make my 4:00. But at least gimme a call back or something or maybe when you're done South ___, South West and if I don't speak to you before then have a great trip and even if you're not to be my Sunday morning date at ___ I hope I get to see you next time I'm in New York. Bye.
That's what we call a transcript. I was on a conference call when this message came in, but I was able to read it via email and get relevant info. Google has miles to go to match this. They should just buy SpinVox and plug their engine into Google Voice.
Other feedback on the Google Voice system:
- The migration from GrandCentral to Google Voice is the wackest thing ever because there is no actual migration. See, the word "migration" implies moving your stuff from one place to another, but the only thing that moves is your number. All my existing GrandCentral contacts and messages remain in the old system, and there's no way to manually import. I have years of voicemails that are trapped in a dead service. Boo.
- Using Google Voice and SkyDeck at the same time leads to an echo effect. I don't think this is Google's fault per se, but it's still annoying. SkyDeck/SpinVox is great at handling my cell phone voicemails, and I'll continue to receive those since thousands of people have that number. The problem is the Google Voice service trips the SkyDeck voicemail service up, so when people leave messages on the Google number, I get an empty voicemail on the SkyDeck service leading to lots of crap texts and emails. Boo.
- While it's nice that the Google Voice web interface is integrated with my Gmail contacts, they reallly, really dumbed the service down. This is a tendency of Google with their acquisitions. They take 50 features and reduce them to five, and call it progress. Point being, Google has adopted the facebook method of handling messages: you can't file/label things. All I can do with a voicemail or text is "star" it, mark as read or delete. Now that gmail has me used to labels, Google Voice takes them away and forces me to maintain a full inbox or get rid of everything. Give me my damn labels back. Boo
- Texting. Good news is if someone texts my Google number, it also hits my cell phone, and when I respond, that response comes from the Google number! Yay. Bad news is I cannot initiate a text from my cell phone that originates from my Google number. Also, from the web interface, I can only send one text at a time. I can't separate numbers by a comma, and blast a text to a group. Boo.
The overarching challenge for uReach, CallWave, SkyDeck, SpinVox and Google Voice, etc is that they are working outside the system. These services are all chipping away at access to your actual telecom service. They're fighting the network and the hardware which they don't really control. All these services would be made moot if the cell phone companies just offered this as part of their package. Why do I need to manually enter some wacky forwarding codes to get voicemail transcripts? Why don't Verizon/Sprint/T-Mobile/AT&T just offer it. It's clearly possible, and they have the raw message data. More importantly to them, why am I paying $10 or $15 a month extra to other companies for this? They should want this money from me or offer it for free like Google.
I should be able to go to my phone company for these phone services, but instead I'm turning to random startups and a search engine. There's something jacked up about that. The communications companies would rather sell me $5 ringtones and choppy "mobile TV" than actually help me communicate more efficiently.
So here's what I want. I want a service like Google Voice to go further. I want it integrated with the hardware, maybe (call me crazy) with the Google phone I already own. In fact, I want to buy a Google phone and attach my Google number to it. Why do I need a relationship with T-Mobile? Google has my contacts, my emails, my soul. T-Mobile just has me by force of habit and contract. Rather than getting a new number from Google, let me port my current cell phone number into the Google Voice service. I could then pay a fee to someone or someones (don't care who) for network access, but the services and hardware would be provided by someone who's shown an ability to actually innovate. Now we're talkin (or texting or emailing or facebooking or tweeting).