Eryan Cobham

Thinker-tinker. Web Developer.

Google Voice Issues

Just finished reading this article on Slate about how Google Voice now has phone number portability. The author, Farhad Manjoo, fully admits that he’s a huge Google Voice proponent and thinks everybody should use it too. That’s his opinion, and he’s welcome to it, but I’ve been using GVoice since it was still called GrandCentral, before it was purchased by Google, and I steadily find myself no longer wanting it to be the one and only number you will ever need that they are trying to make it into. I actually find myself much more interested in finding a service that does the opposite. I’ll explain, here’s the part near the end that struck me.

The phone network still operates as if our phones are tied to specific, permanent devices and geographic locations. Voice is building a new, modern structure on top of this network, a system that works more like e-mail or instant messaging. Your e-mail and IM accounts aren’t tied to certain computers; they’re out in the cloud, and you can chat with your friends whether you’re at home in Brooklyn or at an Internet cafe in Zanzibar.

Phones should work the same way. Why shouldn’t you be able to reach me on a single number whether I’m at home or at work? And why shouldn’t I be able to answer every call on my home phone, where I don’t have to pay for airtime?

There’s no doubt that GVoice is pretty powerful. You can customize it so that family members’ calls always get through, work calls only come through at certain times, and blocked numbers go straight to voicemail. That’s all pretty great, because it’s really flexible, and you can have a different action for each person with your number.

The other side of that coin though is that flexibility causes equal parts complication. You have the power to go into fine-grained detail with what happens when each person calls your number, but that means you have to actually log onto GVoice and spend the time doing all of that customization, which even I am loathe to do. Even if it’s only to put everybody into “Family,” “Friends,” and “Work” groups, that’s a pretty significant investment of time (especially when you have Google Contacts adding every single person you email into your contact list— a big part of why I stopped syncing GContacts with Address Book and just largely ignore it). I organized people into groups once a long time ago; it took forever, and I have no interest in doing so again.

Power users are sure to dig deep into these customizing features in order to save a few minutes here and there out of their busy schedules, but for most people, it’s just overkill. You don’t want work calls coming in on your cell phone? Then you probably just don’t give work people your cell phone number. Obviously some people don’t have that option, but then how much does GVoice really help in that case anyway? You can look and see who’s calling and decide not to answer. GVoice basically helps automate that, but takes away the discretion you usually have (regardless of whether or not you want that discretion). It further breaks down that barrier between home and work that some of us value fairly highly. Do you really want people from work reaching you by phone as easily as they can reach you by email?

Right now I basically use Google voice as my business phone line. When somebody calls it’ll ring all my phones and I pick up wherever I’m at, usually on my cell. What I’d really like though, is closer something that does the opposite and mostly exists already—kind of like call forwarding. Instead of one number to rule them all, I want to have a few different phone numbers—one for work, one for family/friends, and maybe one for all those places you have to give a number but don’t want to give your cell because of telemarketers—that all go to the same phone (cell or otherwise). This would be much rougher than the fine grained control you get from GVoice right now, but I think it’d be easier for me to deal with, because it’s basically what I do now. I don’t have any controls on GVoice, but if people are calling that number then I know it must be for work, because that’s pretty much the only time I give it out. So I can just decide not to answer. No other configuration needed.

This will probably never happen, because it would start to remove phone companies as a middleman. It would basically be a system where you own some phone numbers and then can assign those numbers yourself to one or more devices, rather than going through AT&T; or Verizon and asking them to do so, the way we do now. I can still hope though. In the meantime I may just accumulate a few numbers through Google Voice and figure out a way to implement my system.