Mike Caulfield became the most popular guy in his inner circle last week. He got one of the hotly coveted Google Voice phone numbers, and his pals didn't.
"There was a lot of jealousy from my friends, who've been waiting for their number," says Caulfield, an instructional designer at Keene State College in New Hampshire.
Google Voice is Google's attempt to remake how we think of the phone. It lets you use one new phone number to tie together your various numbers: cellphone, home phone, business line. Friends call your Google number, and all the other phones ring — you choose which one to answer.
Voice mail flows to all of the phones, along with a free transcription by Google.
Wylie Burt, who works in Detroit for General Motors, received his Google Voice number last week and alerted his 300-plus phone contacts that he had a new number.
Once his contacts commit to using it, the new number will consolidate his four other phone lines: work, home, cell and a separate car phone. "It's very possible that this way, I'll be able to get back to you sooner," Burt says.
Google announced Google Voice in March. It is rolling it out gradually to people who request a number. Last week the company began releasing "tens of thousands" of numbers a day to fulfill those requests, says Vincent Paquet, a Google senior product manager. Demand is such that Google Voice invites are being auctioned for as much as $100 currently on eBay.
Paquet says Google is rolling the service out slowly to make sure everything works and doesn't crash. Registrations are still being accepted at voice.google.com. Paquet says anyone who signs up should receive a Google Voice invitation within "a few weeks."
Today, the company is launching Google Voice apps for BlackBerry and Google Android phones. There's no app for the iPhone yet, but Paquet says Google is working on it.
The app lets you make a call and have it show up in Caller ID as coming from your Google number, not your cellphone. "The benefit is that once you start using the Google Voice number, you have the one number that brings together all your phones," Paquet says. "You can take the call from anywhere."
Convenience and portability
The service was born from a company Paquet and Craig Walker founded in 2006, GrandCentral Communications, which Google acquired the following year. The core idea is that "my communication should be tied to me," Paquet says. "I shouldn't have to keep changing phone numbers or giving out new ones."
Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin has been using Google Voice for several months. While he thinks it is a cool concept, he believes there are too many hurdles for it to quickly take off. "People are slow to make changes, especially with technology," he says. "It's hard to get people to want to instantly change phone numbers."
Paquet says Google is working on making it possible to "port" your existing phone number to use as your Google Voice number, so that you won't have to get people comfortable with a new number. "It's one of our biggest requests."
Google hopes to make money on the product eventually through international calls, Paquet says. It also falls into its mantra of organizing the world's information. "The same way we do it for e-mail with Gmail or your photos with Picasa, now there's a way to organize all your voice communications in one place," Paquet says.
Google's international rates are as low as 2 cents a minute for calls to Europe. Internet phone service Skype offers similar pricing, but most people make Skype calls on their computers using headsets.
It's the e-mail transcription service that motivated Bryan Nichols of Bellevue, Wash., to sign up for Voice. "It's really slick," he says.
Caulfield thinks Voice will help him cut down his cellphone bill. He has a pay-as-you go TracFone cellphone, and buys $30 phone cards monthly that give him 240 minutes of talk time. His cellphone is used primarily by folks reaching him in the evening, after work. Now, with calls transferred to his home land line, "I won't have to buy another phone card until the fall, at least," he says.
For now, Golvin thinks word of mouth will slowly spread about Voice. Friends will invite others to join them, and slowly, a major network will be formed.
"It's not going to be a monster overnight hit, but one that will build slowly," Golvin says. "Today, Google's target is the advanced user, and that's a limited audience."