Saturday, October 2, 2010

Grand Central becomes Google Voice with upgraded features

In March, Google released its updates to Grand Central, a call-forwarding service acquired in 2007, as a beta to existing Grand Central users. In the coming weeks, they hope to release it to the public. In this post I am going to look at a few features of the new Google Voice from an overview level. Grand Central is a call-forwarding service that will allow users to send incoming calls to any number of registered devices.
The first thing that is different is the Web interface. Given a choice between the Google-ized pages and the previous Grand Central pages, I have to go with Google. The two interfaces are shown in Figure A.

Figure A

Grand Central and Google Voice inboxes (click to enlarge)
Another feature that is immediately noticeable in Google Voice is SMS messaging. The new service allows users to receive and send text messages from the Web or their phones. This works similarly to the text messaging we are all used to; however, when you send a text the message appears to come from your Google Voice phone number. (In a future post I will examine how Google got this functionality working and why it is extremely cool.)
All calls and SMS messages are kept in an inbox similar to the one Gmail uses, allowing them to be searched and histories kept. There is no G-Mail style archiving or labels, but hopefully that is coming soon. Labels or direct integration into G-mail/Google Apps would be a great addition to the service to cut down the number of inboxes to check.
When reviewing voice or SMS messages, you can also add notes to these messages (Figure B), which remain with the message until it is deleted.

Figure B

Send an SMS message from Google Voice Web interface
Since upgrading to Google Voice about a week ago I have also found the transcription service to be very, very useful. When someone calls and leaves a voicemail on your Google Voice number, the message will be transcribed and e-mailed to you as well as being visible from the Google Voice inbox and mobile Web inbox views. The transcriptions are not perfect, but they are pretty close, and it certainly saves calling to check voicemail.

Why is Google Voice useful?

The service allows you to give out one number and receive calls at any one of the phones you currently use. For example, if I have a phone at my desk that rings when 111-222-3333 is called and my cell number is 111-222-2323, and my home number is 111-222-1515 — anyone looking to get in touch with me might need to call any one of three numbers. With Google Voice, I get one number and register each of my existing numbers to it, so that I have to give out only the Google Voice number. This way when any contact calls the new number, all the phones I have configured to work with the service will ring.
If my cell number or provider changes (and the number cannot be ported), I register those new numbers with Google Voice and none of my contacts need to be updated. It also can be quite useful for those people with only a cell phone. You can configure a second number, perhaps an office phone, and configure it not to ring. Then, if your cell battery were to fail or you had no service, you could send calls to the second number temporarily.
Another enhanced feature in Google Voice is Groups. Grand Central allowed four groups for call types: Work, Friends, Family, and Other. Most of the time these worked quite well; however, in the new release, Google has allowed users to add their own groups (Figure C). Each group can have its own settings (such as greetings, call screening, or call announce).

Figure C

Groups in Google Voice
These are the new or enhanced features I have found to be most useful so far. As the service grows, I am sure there will be more