Google Voice Was So Very Close To Working

I hate the telephone.  I hate voice mail.  I’ve tried hard to simplify how this works in my world.  I only have two phone numbers (my cell phone and my work phone, which is an IP phone that rings in all the different houses / offices that I have), schedule all phone calls, and use PhoneTag as my voicemail transcription service (both my cell phone and my desk phone forward to it when I don’t answer.)  I never listen to voice mails (everything is an email), rarely get phone calls during the day, and have done a pretty good job of getting rid of phone interruptions in my life given how busy I am.

Even though I’m in a reasonable stable state, I have one thing that bothers me.  I still have two phone numbers – one for my cell phone and one for my desk phone.  When my assistant Kelly schedules a call, she does a pretty good job of using my cell phone when I’m on the road and my desk phone when I’m in my office or at home (my cell phone doesn’t work in my house in Eldorado Springs at all and barely works in Keystone – thanks AT&T).  However, she still has to do the manual translation of my location to phone number (blech) and I occasionally (well – regularly) end up somewhere other than expected.

I thought Google Voice might be the solution.  However, I don’t want to have to tell the world a new phone number.  Plus, a lot of people call me back via caller ID so when I call on various phones they just call me back on that phone.  So I came up with a hack to try.  I’d forward my desk phone (call it 4) to my Google Voice number.  Then I’d give out my desk phone to everyone going forward.  Google Voice would then ring all of my other phone numbers, including my cell number.  On no answer, Google Voice would transcribe my message and email it to me.

Problem #1 happened when Amy emailed me from Keystone (when I was in my office in Boulder) and said “your phone is ringing off the hook today – make it stop.”)  I have an extension 4 phone in Keystone.  Easy fix – I changed my IP phones so Keystone was 1, Eldo was 2, my office was 3, and the 4 just forwarded to Google Voice.  I then set up groups in Google voice to easily forward only to the phones where I was (e.g. when I wasn’t in Keystone, 1 didn’t ring).  Problem #1 solved.

Problem #2 happened the next day when I got an email from a regular caller saying the phone “just rang and rang” and voice mail never picked up.  I heard of this from a few more people – the only thing I could come up with was that Google Voice wasn’t answering every now and then or there was some kind of forwarding black hole that I hadn’t figured out.  I’ll give Google Voice the benefit of the doubt on this one, but I still couldn’t figure out the black hole.

Problem #3 was a delay that I was starting to notice when talking on my cell phone.  The forwarding from my desk phone (4) to Google Voice to my cell phone was introducing enough of an IP delay to be noticeable.  I tried to mentally adjust for it but it was unpredictable.  This gave me a headache (a physical one, not a virtual one).

Problem #4 was caller ID wasn’t coming through correctly.  Again, I’ll give Google Voice benefit of the doubt – I think I probably could have figured out how to hack our phone system to forward to caller ID to Google Voice which would then forward it on.  But I didn’t.  And the Google Voice intro that announced the caller often was either blank (presumably the caller didn’t say anything), it was cut off (possibly due to the forwarding), or it was hard to understand.  Regardless, I found myself feeling less comfortable that I knew who was calling.

Problem #5 was the Google Voice transcriptions were unreadable.  I find the PhoneTag emails to often be entertaining, but they are never incomprehensible.  In contrast, I found myself having to listen to three out of four of the Google Voice messages because the transcriptions made no sense.

But Problem #6 sunk me.  Suddenly, I was getting a lot more phone calls!  My previously silent phone was ringing more often.  I hadn’t really thought this through but in hindsight it was obvious since I was generating so many more ring points.

At some level, I could bit the bullet and just try giving out the Google Voice number and see what happens.  But, after a week of being back in my old routine, where my phone rarely rings and when I get a PhoneTag email message I can quickly see who called and why, I’m sticking with the old way for now.

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  • Have you considered Ribbit? I live in the UK and so haven't used Google Voice. I do use Ribbit Mobile though and find it very effective.

    I didn't have to get a new number – I just set it up so if I don't answer either of my two cell phones (work and personal), the other rings. I also get voice mail transcriptions, which aren't error proof but but are probably on par with PhoneTag from your description.

    Interesting to read about what's good and not so good about GV though – thanks for the post.

  • Robert

    Brad – Great blog, though I feel I rarely have relevant comments. Your entrepreneurial spirit gives me hope for starting a weekend mustard shop (seriously, I love mustard). Anyways, I think you may be taking the wrong approach with forwarding. I'd try setting your iphone to forward to google voicemail and check the box that allows unanswered calls to first ring your other phones. Thus, you give everyone your iphone number (not google voice). They call. It has no signal, it rings your IP line, you answer if you're there. The obvious downside being that you'd have to deal w/google voice transcriptions. I'm not sure whether or not you use the gmail web-client. If so, playing messages from it is really very easy if you enable the appropriate lab. Sorry if you tried this and I missed that fact. Best, Robert.

  • I've noticed a few of those glitches also, and had one or two outbound calls that connected so slowly that the person on the other end hung up before I connected into the call.

    So, Google still has some bits to work though a bit better, the main one being the true number portability so you can just switch one of your numbers over to Google Voice and then control which phone you want to ring.

    I hope, and assume, that Google is working on some Android software that will pick up your location using GPS on the phone, and automagically ring only the phone that is physically near you, and the cell if you are not near one of your land lines.

  • I tried Ribbit. I actually think it uses PhoneTag for the transcriptions.  I didn’t really see any benefit to it at all since I already had my phones forwarded to PhoneTag.

  • Thanks for weighing in.  I effectively did this – just backwards from your suggestion (where the forwarding was from my IP phone).  As I think about it, it’s possible this would have been a better approach since I would have gotten caller ID on my iPhone directly.  Now, I don’t really need to use Google Voice for this as I’d just forward my iPhone to my (4) number on no answer (right now my iPhone forwards to PhoneTag), except I wouldn’t have the ability to control the ringing on the various IP phones in different locations (e.g. 1..3) and I’d subsequently drive Amy crazy.

    Ultimately, it’d end up getting transcribed by Google Voice which is very inferior to PhoneTag so ultimately it would have failed for me.  Plus, I’m on an iPhone and am an Outlook user so I don’t get any of the happy Google Gmail or Voice mobile benefits.

    But – good to think through this approach to see if it was better.

    And don’t underestimate the need for weekend mustard shops! 

  • Number portability is a biggie – if they’d had an easy way to do this (and move back and forth – especially with a landline / IP phone number) that would have made it more satisfying to test.  I’m not sure it would have been any better, but there’s a definite psychological benefit.

    I love the Android / GPS suggestion.  Very smart, except for on those days when you go to work but leave your phone one and at home on your desk!

  • DaveJ

    Why don't you just permanently forward your office phone to voicemail/Phonetag; get a new number for your cellphone, and simply never, ever accept inbound calls that are not scheduled? People who need to reach you know how to do so. It seems like this is a situation begging for a process, not a technology, solution.

  • There are definitely times when I want to be able to receive calls directly.  For example, whenever you call, I’ll pick up.  Or, more importantly, when my folks or Amy call.  I guess I can solve this by giving y’all my top secret magic number.

    For all my scheduled calls I have to give out a phone number since we don’t always connect the first time, even though it’s scheduled (sometimes it is me, sometimes it is the other person).  So – I’m giving out a number anyway. 

    I’ve contemplated this approach of just having everything go to PhoneTag but I never quite get my mind around it.

  • I've been using GV increasingly for the past 5 months or so. I am more or less trying to turn that number into my business number, albeit slowly. That's now the number I give new people. The transcription in worthless, but you do normally get the name and number, and 8 out of 10 times I know what they want anyway. My issue with it is that I haven't yet found a way to dynamically link my regular, personal, gmail with my google apps business e-mail. Short of regularly downloading the contacts from one account and uploading to the other, I end up having GV linked to one account or the other for contacts. It's not the end of the world, but it is annoying. I wish you could share your contacts with yourself basically.

  • OffBeatMammal

    Transcription from GV is terrible… I'd switched from SpinVox to GV and I'm at the point of switching back because despite all their data and algorithms … it's terrible. I've yet to find an accent it likes (perhaps it only speaks Mountain View well… it sure doesn't deal with folks from below the Mason Dixon Line, New York, WA, India or New Zealand very well!)

    The other thing that really annoys the snot out of me is when I get a message forwarded to my cell as a text it appears to come not from the caller but from me. So they have to waste space in the message giving me the callers number and my phone can't do the number lookup and quickly tell me who it was from… and I can't dial them back or reply to the text message without extra clicks and keystrokes. (SpinVox manages this really well also)

    The call forwarding is handy but because I'm also losing callerID info its less useful

    I'm just waiting for Skype to get on this train and really integrate mobile, voip, multi-ring and transcription with their existing phone/IM platform and Google may have a competitor who can stand up to their relentless march…

    either way… I just want a solution that works properly!

  • Neil S.

    I have a very similar setup with my cell / office phones with google voice.

    The way I currently do it:

    1. Cell Phone #, Reject to forward to GV, which then rings my office phones and skype. It also provides me with the sms transcript of the voicemail too, since I rarely listen to a vm.

    And I also have my CallerID outgoing to all mirror my cell number. So my SIP, Skype, and POTS lines all look like it's coming from my cell number.

  • Yeah – I thought about this approach but don’t want my cell as my primary number for the world.

  • David

    Part of an eventual solution, in my opinion, will be location-based call forwarding. There's an Android app that changes phone settings (eg., wifi connection, ring/vibrate) depending on your GPS location (home, office, synagogue). I want a location-based call forwarding app. That won't solve the problem of the callback number that shows up when you place a call, but that's where my backseat ideation peters out…

  • David

    Whoops, missed Scott's comment. He's 3 hours smarter than me.

  • Phil Sugar

    I also have resisted using my cell as my primary number for the world.

    But when I think about it, I'm not sure I'm being logical.

    It used to be that you really wanted to have all your numbers separate: Work, Home (only to family), cell (only to special people), but that's all blurred. Really the only reason for most of us to have landlines is that the quality is better, and since the device can be bigger it can have better form factors.

    But if you're intermixing them all why not have the primary as that can move around not the ones that are fixed. If you're going to send all to voicemail and have them transcribed so long as a person has one number you're going to see it at the same time whether or not they call home, work, cell so what is the difference? Special people have a special ringtone that you pickup.

    I think this is just a part of the change in the way we communicate. I know some people think its bad, but for me it means I can do something with my kids during business hours.

    That being said I have not made my cell phone my primary number 🙂

  • gsiener

    I've got a similar setup going, and the desk phone ringing has been the worst part. I'm actually using an IPKall number (free US sip endpoint) routing through an asterisk system. It emails me the voicemail and I can listen to it in line with my email. No transcription but it does show who the call came from. I think I can actually install an asterisk plugin for transcription (or use something like twilio) but haven't been frustrated enough to try yet.

    Re: the caller id number displayed, you have to train yourself to call via GV, which will then display your GV # instead of the number you're calling from. I hear Android handles this well.

    I've noticed the same GV lag issues as well, especially if there is voip somewhere in the calling tree. There's talk of porting numbers to GV, but I worry about porting the number back out.

    Perhaps the long term solution is to call "Brad Feld" and let the system work out how to reach you. OOP in the telecom world, if you will…

  • Hopefully porting a number over to Google Voice is happening soon. I have been using Google Voice as my VM carrier for the past few months and while the transcriptions have been awful, they are getting better. The benefit is that I can at least get an email approximation of the message to know if it is important.

    As soon as they open up the ability to port my number to GV, I am doing it. Phone numbers should not be tied to a device or a location and this will be the enabler.

    On the techcost front this will also allow me to be carrier agnostic and sign up for a planphone every year if I wanted
    eeded to.

  • Brad, can you get off the phone entirely and just use asynchronous options like email?

  • The PhoneTag transcriptions are SO much better.  Hopefully Google is putting the right focus on this – once they transcriptions work there’s no reason to use a service like PhoneTag.  And I totally agree with number portability.

  • I wish.  Unfortunately no.  I try really hard, but there are still many instances where I need to be on the phone to get something done.

  • Re: the long term solution – YES!  I can’t wait for that.  Some day.  It seems like that one should have been here around 1991, but at the speed our friendly neighborhood telcos innovate, I think this is one a software company is going to have to solve for us.

  • My biggest problem is that my cell phone simply does not work at my house in Boulder or my house in Keystone.  AT&T recently improved the service in the Keystone area so it’s a little better there, but still not good enough for regular usage.

  • “Location-based call forwarding” is super important.  Super duper important.  And it should be possible NOW.

  • Now you are in my world.

    There are several solutions to solve this for the enterprise – but for individuals it is a bit trickier. Google Voice is decent start but has two problems for you – inbound porting of the number isn't supported and outbound dialing is tricky (esp on an iPhone). If you were willing to change your cell phone to BB or Android and change your number – Free GV would work well. But life is a bunch of choices and that choice doesn't seem appropriate for you now.

    By the way, the issue with GV transcription is it is ok, not great. But the problem is colloquial speech. When you call say United Airlines and have to speak to a voice system – we tend to speak very slowly and clearly. But when we talk to voice mail we don't. The trick is to put in your greeting the info that the message will automatically transcribed and to speak very clearly. that gets it to about 80%.

    So what to do? You really want a virtual number service. There are plenty of paid services such as similar to Google Voice that will let you port a number in. Or you can use an enterprise solution. Rally has the ability to do this on their phone system – the feature is called Dynamic Extension. If you port a number there, you can have all your IP phones connected to it and your cell phone. Outbound callerid Is supported but 2 steps.

    The challenge really is outbound calling/callerid. Here Google Voice has the leg-up. the official way is to call into Google Voice and then place the call. But the hack is much better ( you can put 406 numbers in your speed dial and voila – even on an iphone.

    I expect lots of changes in 2010 – and suspect GV will allow inbound porting in the not so distant future. They allow outbound porting now.

  • Eric Litman turned me on to, which has an iphone app and is a replacement for PhoneTag. I loved phonetag (and still pay the $10/month in case I want to go back), but has done a great job so far. Not that is what you are writing about, but thought I would mention it.

  • you might want to check out – could be a great place to start selling your mustard 🙂

  • Have you tried

  • No – I will.

  • Google claims inbound number porting is coming – I hope it happens soon.

    Also, the real time Nexus One voice recognition is way better than GV transcriptions. Maybe it's the way people talk (as Dave mentions) or maybe it's related to the quality of the audio (the Nexus One must be processing much higher quality audio than GV is dealing with) – but it seems like Google must be able to do better with GV transcriptions.

  • I’ll definitely give it a try with the Nexus One (should have mine tomorrow).

  • I found many of the same frustrations with GV and have basically given up on it for now. Like you I don’t want to have another number to give out so portability will be important. I’ve made the step to make my mobile number my primary number, there is a phone on my desk but it’s basically used only as an intercom to other offices. Thanks to caller ID and not being high profile I’ve found it pretty easy to get away with. Part of that was the fact my iPhone works pretty well most places I go, including home.

    Besides the horrible transcription (which there is a great site somewhere with funny botched transcriptions) was there lack of support for Google for your domain accounts. I use google services, but I’m not going to also going to have a second instance of my contacts in gmail to manage just for Google voice. From launch it should have been compatible with Google Apps accounts.

    The one advantage GV has, and a feature I was really looking forward to, was SMS. Even though I have essentially consolidated down to one phone for everything (thanks headset and Bluetooth speakerphones) most of the time I would like to handle SMS like email, on the phone and on the web. I am looking forward to the time when there is a supported google voice app for the iPhone.

    I’ve used PhoneTag on and off for the last few years and have been quite happy with there service, best transcription I’ve found yet. I’m not currently using it, but am looking at switch back. The one feature I would really like is a PhoneTag iPhone app. Much like there blackberry app, something that would list the voicemail and allow easy playback directly from the phone. Brad, do you happen to have the phonetag message play on your outgoing message? I’m wondering you have noticed a difference in the transcription quality with the notice on or off.

  • RE the callerid issue – you can choose to have your GV number displayed (helpful if, for instance, more than one person is forwarding a GV number to your landline) or display the number of the originating caller. Not worth changing, I realize, until the transcription improves further, but worth pointing out that this alone needn't be an issue.

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  • Understood – not a gating issue – but as you say not worth messing with until the transcription gets better.

  • I don’t have their standard greeting – I have a custom greeting and the person doesn’t know it’s being emailed to me.  I like it better this way for some reason (I’m not entirely sure why.)

  • Neat – I’ll take a look.

  • Dave – thanks for the long comment.  I’m optimistic about both (a) inbound porting and (b) better transcription so my guess is I’ll take another shot at this in six months.  Or – maybe sooner if I decide I like the Nexus One better than the iPhone.

  • Andy

    GV's transcription engine isn't very good at phrases. Instead it's trying to do specific words. That's why PhoneTag (now owned by Ditech Networks) and SpinVox (now owned by Nuance) are better. Most IP phone systems can cover your routing issue though. Avaya and Cisco can for sure. I have an Avaya iPhone app (one-X Mobile) that when I call a contact, it sends a data signal to the server, which calls me, then calls the person I want to speak with. All they see is my work number for caller ID and I use the calling rates from the IP phone system, not AT&T, which is nice for international calls. I never have to give out my work number. All calls to my work number are routed to my cell simultaneously and I can set schedules and VIP lists when I don't want it to ring my cell. If you use the Avaya voicemail system, it can also email me the transcription (I believe they are using SpinVox for this). Of course, this can be a lot of equipment to buy for a small office.

  • Now it is working, Americans now can sign up and make free calls now.

    Great news, cheers.

  • Found it very readable.

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