GoogleVoice.gifGoogle Voice is going to define what [[unified communications]] means for millions of consumers. Although in limited trials for about the past year (maybe longer but my memory of these things is a little weak), as of June 2010 it is available throughout the US. It’s looking to kick Skype in the teeth. I suppose that with its extensive features, incredibly low price (nothing) and marketing muscle that is all things Google, we should expect to see millions of subscribers in no time.

But, my question is, will it be useful in business settings and for business users?

Feature-wise, the service supports:

  • one number – on signup, you get assigned a USA 10-digit telephone number for life that we’ll call a Google Voice Number or GVN for short. Sadly, you can’t port any number you already have over to GV. 🙁 The idea is that you use the web service management page (is there any other way?) called the Google Voice Inbox (GVI) to control how you want calls to that GVN  to be dealt with. Do you want all your calls to ring to your mobile # during the day, and to your voicemail after hours unless it’s from your mother (who is calling you in the middle of the night to tell you bad news)? These are the rules you can establish here.
  • SMS support – you can send SMS to your GVN and it can (through the GVI) send SMS to any mobile number or GVN.
  • Privacy – what calls do you want to be blocked? Now you can block the call blockers.
  • Voicemail to text – this is a nifty transcription service that could be handy to lawyers in meetings who can check their BlackBerry to read email but not answer phone calls. However, the error rates (except for numbers) are probably still pretty high. Automated audio transcription is still pretty complex given the imperfections in how we speak let alone how we speak to a recording device.
  • Personalized greetings – interactive voice response technology defines the auto attendant so listen closely because our menus have changed…
  • International calling – Here’s where Google Voice wants to really competes hard with SkypeOut, the revenue-generating service of Skype. Using your computer, you can call internationally for pennies per minute (at current rates, it seems it’s about $0.001 cheaper with Google Voice than with SkypeOut). International calls can be initiated through your GVN too. Call the GVN, authenticate yourself and you’re using it to call anywhere else. But unlike SkypeOut, the service does not include a client, so you never speak into your computer. You always use a phone. Once you tell Google Voice the number you want to call, it rings you first, then the other party.
  • Share voicemail – by emailing your voicemail within the Google Voice Inbox.
  • Call screening – using a find me follow me feature, users can decide how to respond to callers (send to voicemail or answer) and even listen in while they’re leaving a message which you can interrupt mid-message.
  • Conference calls – participants call your GVN at the appointed time and you can add them in to the conference call as they arrive. Features like line mute and call recording don’t seem to be available.

Here’s two other writeups on Google Voice that you may find interesting: NetworkWorld, Guide to getting started and

So, how does Google Voice stack up with my business needs?

First of all, it’s not a VoIP service. All calls made through the GVN must go to another telephone number. It could be used as a visual voicemail or voicemail-to-text service.

Google Voice uses VOIP to enable the cheap international calling, but both ends of the call are on the PSTN or the wireless network. Secondly, users typically use it to sort out their many telephone numbers and implement time-of-day or per-caller call control.

My needs are less interesting. I have one number in my business. It’s my mobile number. I make all my international calls via SkypeOut, Skype-to-Go or use Skype (via computer) to do video with my clients. SkypeOut calls use my mobile number as the caller ID. I have an independent conference bridge service for whenever I need to make professional conference calls.

My daughter who works in the TV production business, has one telephone number, a mobile number. She uses Google Voice’s call screening feature to control access to her mobile number.

So, with the exception of the voicemail processing features, the overall scope of the service isn’t all that helpful to my business. I’m not sure that the international calling option is really better than using SkypeOut. SkypeOut lets me call any telephone number in Canada or USA for $36/year from my computer. This uses zero minutes of my mobile.

Will businesses rip out their IP PBXes or IP key systems and replace it with Google Voice?

Not likely.

Businesses want control of their telecom. They have grown accustomed to a corporate-wide auto attendant or switchboard where calls go to a corporate message or human-controlled switchboard and then out to the various departments or extensions. They like the multiple line appearances of key systems where any user can access any call. They want users to use their desk phone when they’re at their desk and the mobile phone when they’re mobile. This typically reduces the average telecom expense per employee, and generally assures a professional audio experience for customers. Business voicemails are normally left in the business voicemail box.

Perhaps in certain industries, such as the legal profession, where an attorney can give clients their GVN and then use the GVI to route general calls to the lawyer on duty during off-hours, Google Voice can be a great way to separate the work from the family life. Similarly, for healthcare professionals, where the physician gives their patients the GVN, using the GVI to route calls, call screening to assess the emergency nature of incoming calls and transcription to read about it in less obtrusive ways that won’t upset family members during off-duty time.

In these two highly-skilled professional scenarios, the need for work-family separation is very real. These professionals need to be able to do business around the clock, but not necessarily all the time. They need the personal control, and Google Voice might be able to give them a little more than they may be used to.