Google Voice: It’s the End of the Phone As We Know It

[Update 12:00 pm 3/20/09: We were swamped with hundreds of e-mails in response to our offer of 100 free Google Voice beta accounts this morning. Thanks everyone! We’ll be in touch with the winners as soon as possible with details about their new accounts.]

Brace for impact, again. Google is about to change the way you think about telephones.

The information giant has a pattern of setting its sights on an existing technology, moving in with overwhelming software-engineering force, and upending all of our old expectations. We didn’t know we needed ads alongside our search results, and Google turned keyword-based advertising into a multi-billion-dollar industry. We all thought e-mail was something we could only access and manage using desktop programs like Outlook, then along came Gmail. We thought we had to go to libraries to find out-of-print books, then Google went and created Google Book Search. We imagined cell phone platforms would always be controlled by a few elite carriers and handset makers, then Google started Android.

To be clear about it, Google didn’t invent keyword-based advertising, Web mail, book scanning, or open-source software. It just figured out how to apply such technologies more cleverly and pervasively than anyone else. And that’s what it has done once more with Google Voice—the renovated version of Grand Central, the phone-number-unification service it bought in 2007.

Grand Central was a startup that allowed users to sign up for a single phone number for life. A call to that number would automatically ring through to any or all of the other phones the user designated, meaning they no longer had to give their acquaintances separate home, office, and mobile numbers. Google paid somewhere north of $50 million for the technology, then spent more than a year and a half rebuilding it to work with its own infrastructure. Starting March 12, Google upgraded old Grand Central’s existing users to Google Voice accounts, and started inviting in a few beta testers. It plans to open up the free service to anyone in the U.S. starting “soon“—in a few weeks, by all accounts.

The Google Voice InboxI’ve been testing Google Voice for the last couple of days, and I’m impressed. I think the service will mark a kind of tipping point in public perceptions of telephony. Before this, it was still possible to think of the phone system as something predating the Internet and therefore distinct from it, surrounded by its own set of customs and usage patterns. After this, we’ll think of phone calls more as if they were audio e-mails—finding their way through the uber-network to their intended recipients wherever those recipients may be located, and leaving a digital record that can be stored, searched, and manipulated on the Web.

There are a lot of features to Google Voice, which makes the overall concept a bit hard to explain, as I’ve realized over the past couple of days as I’ve talked with friends and colleagues about it. So I’ll try to simplify things. You start by signing up for a new phone number in your area code of choice. Google provides a search page where you can look for numbers that spell out mnemonics like “617-IM2-COOL.” In practice, there aren’t that many numbers available, so you might have to search for a while before you find one that spells out something that appeals to you, and that won’t embarrass you five or 10 years from now. (Google could do a better job explaining the number selection process—and it wouldn’t hurt if they showed a picture of a phone keyboard, to remind you of what letters go with what numbers.)

In the same way that an e-mail address doesn’t correspond to a single computer, your Google Voice number doesn’t correspond to any single phone. Indeed, that’s the beauty of the whole system. So once you’ve picked your number, the first thing to decide is which actual phones should ring when someone calls it. You can tell Google Voice to route calls to your office phone, your home land line, your mobile phone, your vacation rental, your Aunt Minnie’s house where you’re staying for the weekend, or all of the above.

The next big decision is about how Google Voice should handle voicemail messages, for those times you can’t answer or don’t want to. As soon as someone leaves a message, it goes into your Google Voice inbox, which you can access by calling the service or by directing the browser on your computer or your mobile phone to the Google Voice website.

If you like, you can simply let messages pile up in your inbox, and check them once in a while by calling in or visiting on the Web. Or you if you want to know about new messages right away, you can set Google Voice to notify you via e-mail or SMS text message.

Now here’s the really cool part. Rather than just notifying you that you got a voicemail the way your cell phone does, Google Voice can—if you choose—send you a text transcription of the message itself. Transcriptions are created automatically using speech recognition software, so they aren’t as accurate as one might like, but they … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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32 responses to “Google Voice: It’s the End of the Phone As We Know It”

  1. David Walkush says:

    I would like to see if I can get a free Google voice accounts. Great article!

  2. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @David: You can get a free account if you’re one of the first 100 people to write to us at [email protected]. See the details in the sixth paragraph of this story.

  3. I received a bounce back when sending a message from Gmail to [email protected]

    In any case, I am interested in an account.


  4. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @Robert, Our apologies. There was a problem with the e-mail address we were using earlier. The correct address to request a free Google Voice account is [email protected].

  5. Lamberto Camacho says:

    When this goes Enterprise, it is going to put tons of companies in bad spots (VoIPs,, Ribbit, etc)… total game changer.

  6. Lamberto Camacho says:

    Just sent you guys an email… looking fwd to testing this out!

  7. I sent you guys an email, You’ve got to hook a Bostonian up!!


  8. Michael Coley says:

    Long time coming.. can’t wait to see the new Google Voice.

    Thanks for offering the GV accounts.

  9. Shaun graham says:

    Wow I didn’t think so many people replied :(. I guess I assumed I was in that group because of the 9 comments on the post. Better luck next time I guess!

  10. Shubham Harnal says:

    Really really want one! (Intend to make a blog about my experience w/ Google Voice on my Nokia N810 tablet)
    Thanks already!

  11. Josh says:

    I agree that GV is nothing short of amazing, and have been using my account to its fullest ever since the switch over from GrandCentral, but some other authors have raised issues concerning the privacy issues of GV.

    Read an analysis of the privacy concerns, as well as Google’s stance here:

  12. patrick says:

    I dont see that the 100 limit has been reached, lets hope there are some left :)

  13. Bill says:

    Will we here when the 100 have been given out? I requested one early and have not heard–I’m hoping that we hear either way. Thanks!

  14. Nick Eman says:

    ” We all thought e-mail was something we could only access and manage using desktop programs like Outlook, then along came Gmail.”

    What are you talking about? Yahoo, Hotmail, Excite, and others had web-based email YEARS before G-Mail showed up. Google wasn’t even around when Yahoo, Hotmail and Excite had web-based mail.

  15. Wade Roush says:

    @Bill: We posted an update at the top of the story around noon Friday, saying we’d given away all the free accounts. The winners will get confirmation from us as soon as we have confirmation that Google has opened their Google Voice accounts. I don’t know if we’ll be able to respond to the non-winners—there were so many.

    @Nick Eman: If you look at the next paragraph after the one you quote, I said Google didn’t invent Web-based mail, they just did it better than everyone else.

  16. Wade Roush says:

    Everyone, check out this insightful follow-on about Google Voice from Chuck Reynolds: “Home Phones, Google Voice, and Android”

  17. Wade,

    Grand Central and Google Voice have certainly made some improvements over traditional telephony, but that’s only part of the story. IP Telephony and Unified Communications technologies, coupled with multimodal mobile devices (smart-phones)are going to make even more mincemeat of the “dumb” telephones we are used to, and how “phone calls” will be initiated, received and responded to in the very near future.

    You need to look at what “federated presence” and “contextual” contact initiation will do for callers through Communications Enabled Business Processing (CEBP) and “click-to-contact”, in addition to what voice-to-text messaging transcription is doing for recipients. Say goodbye to the limitations of a TouchTone keypad in favor of creens, speech input and alphanumeric keyboards. This, in turn, will enable the use of meaningful name directories rather than meaningless phone numbers.

    It won’t happen overnight, but that’s where UC technology is heading and will swallow up “telephony, as we know it!”.

  18. Craig V says:

    Until Google Voice can handle an outbound call as well as inbound, it’s not going to take off with the masses. For example, when I get an SMS through Voice and respond on my cell phone, the reply comes from the cell number, not Voice. Likewise when I call someone from one of my phones, the Caller ID shows my actual phone, not the Voice number. These may seem like small things, but after having used (and liked) Grand Central for over a year now, I can say that this causes much confusion for people who call me and people who I call.

  19. John says:

    Works well so far, but there is a 1-2 ring delay before connecting to the mobile phone. Would like to see that snappier.

  20. @craig A point of clarification, when you receive an SMS from your Voice number, you can reply to that number and the SMS will be sent from your Voice number and not your cell number. This is a great feature. The only aspect that you cannot do is initiate a SMS conversation from your voice number without going to the mobile Google Voice website. I agree that GrandCentral had those drawbacks (which is why I didn’t use it as my main number) but Voice actually does a much better job at solving this and I expect it to only get better. See my article that Wade referenced above for more of my thoughts.

  21. Eric Logan says:

    Nice Write-up Any Invite left ?

  22. Jaime Navarro says:

    Love the article and so looking forward to using google voice as I have been tracking this for months, any invites left on the original 100?

  23. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    A few readers are still wondering whether we have any Google Voice accounts left to give out. Unfortunately the answer is no — we gave them all out quite quickly last Friday. But thanks for your interest. Hopefully it will only be a few weeks until Google opens up the service to everyone.

  24. Craig says:


    I am one of the lucky ones to receive a GV account. Thanks!

    I think it is great. The look and feel is very inline with an email inbox. I really like the ability to use “Block” (redirect to “Not in service”) and “Spam” (redirect to voice mailbox automatically) on incoming numbers. That has been useful already.

    The voice to text isn’t perfect. I tried leaving myself a message and the text was reasonably accurate. My kids (elementary age) left some reasonably clear messages on the phone and the text was quite inaccurate. Some work still to happen there. But it is great having the text coming to email when a voicemail is left.

    More later…

  25. Can someone please send me a google voice invite.

    [email protected]

  26. naz says:

    i dont get this