For the past few years since I moved to the United States, I’ve used a Google Voice telephone number exclusively, and before that I used it as an American number for sending and receiving text messages while I lived in Israel. I’ve evangelized for, propagandized about and agitated on behalf of Google Voice, winning for the free service many new users. And now I’ve quit using it. Here’s why.
First, Google Voice is a pretty complex product with a ton of features. Different GV users depend on completely different features than other GV users. The ones that most mattered to me were:
- Choosing my number. Google Voice lets its users pick their own telephone numbers (US only, and only from what they’ve got in their database at that time). For me, that meant I could have a number spelling my name, in an area code (Manhattan) that had personal meaning to me.
- Texting from the web. People who have never carried out entire text message conversations using the comfort of a full sized keyboard have no idea what they’re missing. Typing exclusively with thumbs is for suckers!
- Ringing all my phones. I actually don’t have a landline at home, so I used this primarily in the office. Besides my mobile phone, I set my desk phone to ring when my Google Voice number was dialed during business hours, and it appeared seamless and perfect to anyone who called me.
- Voicemail transcriptions. Google Voice transcribed all my voicemails and sent them to me as emails. I also often listened to them using the GV web app or iOS app. Because of this, I’ve never had to call into my voicemail box from my mobile phone since I’ve been using GV exclusively.
- International calling. Plenty of services provide this, but Google Voice is relatively inexpensive and lets me call from my own (GV) telephone number.
So there’s clearly a lot of good and cool and interesting features packed into Google Voice. And though I used a lot of them, I never even touched some others like setting up my contacts into groups and assigning different call greetings for different groups.
Why, then, would I get rid of such an amazing service?
- Poor iPhone integration. Google Voice can easily forward all calls and text messages to a user’s phone, but making outgoing calls and sending text messages from a GV phone is an entirely different story. Because Apple wants to control the calling and messaging experience for iPhone users, this functionality is built tightly into iOS, and Google Voice can’t access outgoing calling or text messaging. Consequently, iPhone users with Google Voice will appear to have two telephone numbers: even though they may tell people to call them at GV number XXX-XXX-XXXX, any calls or texts will come from the carrier’s number YYY-YYY-YYYY.
There are ways around this. One is to use the Google Voice iOS app, which is not good. Another is to jailbreak one’s iPhone and install the Call on GV phone extension and the GV SMS Extension, which basically works, but not without a ton of hassle and time and energy and patience (not to mention that these jailbreak tweaks are updated months later than the jailbreaks, which themselves come months behind major new iOS versions).
- Crappy iOS app. Separately from not being able easily to make calls or send text messages from an iPhone using one’s Google Voice number, the Google Voice iOS app is utter rubbish and brings shame to Google every time I look at it. The design is decrepit; basic functionality is missing (like live updating in SMS conversations); there’s not even an iPad version.
- Missing MMS support. MMS is the protocol used for sending pictures in text messages, as well as sending group text messages. When someone sends a text message with a picture attached to a Google Voice user, it never arrives, and that is outrageous and wrong. But even worse than that, no notification whatsoever is sent to the sender or the intended recipient. The message and picture just vanish into thin air. In case you don’t follow what this means, I’ll give an example. Last month, my cousins came to visit me in San Francisco. In advance of their visit, I mailed a set of apartment keys to one of them. He took a picture of the keys and sent it to me with a text message saying that he’d received them. A week later, I asked him if he had ever received the keys I’d sent. I had no idea that he’d sent me the picture, and he had no idea that I hadn’t received it. This flaw alone is enough that anyone with Google Voice should strongly consider ditching it.
To complicate matters further, there is basic support for MMS in Google Voice when the sender’s mobile carrier is Sprint. On a few occasions when people have sent me pictures, I’ve correctly identified that they have Sprint based on this knowledge.
- Google Contacts vs. iCloud contacts. Both systems for contact management, Google Contacts and iCloud contacts / Address Book, are ok but flawed. What I find very annoying is that it’s quite difficult to keep them both in sync without contacts getting duplicated. There is some software that copies iCloud contacts to Google Contacts and vice versa – but it’s clunky – and it’s of course possible to import the contacts from each service into the other manually every once in a while, but I’m not aware of any way to keep them constantly and smoothly in sync with each other. Also, because they’re not set up to play nicely with each other, importing means that they treat data different. Google Contacts, for example, has a nasty habit of treating a two-word business name as a person’s name (for example, Dhaba Restaurant would be entered as firstname: Dhaba and lastname: Restaurant); iCloud, on the other hand, has difficulty accepting that one of my contacts may have more than one mobile phone number. Bottom line, managing and maintaining one set of contacts is plenty.
- Dropped calls and never-calls. It’s difficult to pin this problem to Google Voice specifically, rather than to my individual phone’s carrier or the phone itself, but since I used an iPhone, iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4S, on Partner-Orange, AT&T and Verizon, in Tel Aviv, suburban Maryland and San Francisco, it’s fair to say that the constant throughout all of this was Google Voice. And Google Voice constantly dropped my calls.
Even worse than a dropped call is a never-call, which is my name for when someone calls me, and it rings and rings and then goes to voicemail, except the ringing part never happened and it actually just went straight to voicemail. This has happened to me hundreds of times with Google Voice and it’s stupid and annoying and makes no sense. I have literally been sitting and holding my telephone and staring at it, waiting for someone’s call, when a missed call notification suddenly pops up, followed by a new voicemail notification – without ever getting a ring. This sucks.
- Shortcodes. Shortcodes are the four- or five-digit numbers that many online services, like Facebook and Twitter, use for verification of a user’s telephone number (and identity), as well as for notifications. They are becoming more popular over the years. Google Voice does not support them at all.
If those were the goods and the bads of Google Voice, what is the ugly? The terrifying reality is that ever since Google acquired GrandCentral and turned it into Google Voice, they have been at best apathetic and ambivalent about their astonishingly powerful and interesting service. And it seems clear to me that Google has barely put any resources at all into developing Google Voice in the past three years, which is as long as I have been using it.
Google of 2013 is a different company than Google of 2010 was. Eric Schmidt is gone, and under the stewardship of Larry Page, Google has renewed its focus on areas of its business that make money, or that solidify its lead to make money in the future, or that prevent its competitors from ever becoming dominant enough to prevent it from making money. Google Voice is not in one of these areas, and that is why it has been ignored.
It’s not alone. Many other Google services have been left to die, or have been killed, in the past few years. Google Reader was probably the best of them, and the frustration and anger that poured forth at Google from Reader’s very dedicated users was, at least in part, a function of people’s frustration and anger with Google. That frustration and anger wasn’t purely over Reader’s demise. It was also largely because Google first established itself as the dominant RSS services provider, obliterating all competition by giving Reader away for free, then ceased all innovation and product development for years except to take away users’ sharing options in favor of a favored Google service, Google plus, and finally killed Google Reader when no other service could possibly replace it.
If anyone doubts that Google Voice will one day go the route of Google Reader, I have a bridge connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan to sell him. Google Voice is, in the long run, of zero value to Google’s business and, though I wish they’d sell it to another company or charge money for it, Google will kill it – if not this month than next month, if not this year than next year. But they’ll wait to kill it until they feel like it, and they will keep it alive – but hobbled by missing features – for as long as necessary to ensure that no competing company can develop and launch a similar service. In this way, I might add, Google is evil.
For me, the future is to continue using my Google Voice telephone number as a Verizon number, which is possible because of number portability. More than ninety percent of the people I know have iPhones, so iMessage from my iPhone, iPad and Macs will replace sending text messages from the web. Since a few of my friends don’t have iPhones, I’ll just not get to their text messages as quickly as I’d like.
iMessage is not a mature service, but at least it’s in Apple’s incentive to continue developing it. I wish they would open it up to third parties, but know they won’t, which is a topic for another blog post on another day.
And by the way, when I ported my Google Voice number to my iPhone, I actually set up another one, just in case I ever wanted or needed it. Naturally, it also has my name in it.