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In March, Google unveiled the long-awaited Google Voice, a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)-based service that consolidates multiple phone numbers under a single listing. Aside from providing call routing, it helps users manage and access a myriad of data, such as voicemail and text messages, through the Web. 

The debut marked the fruits of Google’s acquisition of VoIP services provider GrandCentral in 2007 for $95 million. For months after the purchase, Google seemed to let GrandCentral languish—to the chagrin of its existing users—before announcing plans to relaunch and rebrand the service as Google Voice. So when Google  finished its three-month effort to migrate all of GrandCentral’s users to Google Voice, it presented a new visual interface reminiscent of its Gmail service, offered a handful of new features, and tied the service with a user’s Google profile. 

The launch of Google Voice marks Google’s second big push into the voice world. GOOG-411, its automated directory assistance service, was its first foray into voice.  

As of this writing, establishing a Google Voice account is still by invitation only. It’s unclear exactly how Google intends to combine its VoIP service with the numerous others it currently offers. Google has a tendency to play its hand close-to-chest and poker-faced, which means if Google Voice somehow fits into a large schematic, then you’re unlikely to hear it directly from the vendor.  

Placing a call on Google Voice is slightly more unwieldy than on Skype. Users first must call Google Voice and, when prompted, dial the recipient’s number. 

The true value of the service is its ability to direct inbound calls to any existing phone. Consider a Google Voice user who has a fixed line at work, an office cell phone, a personal cell phone, and a fixed line at home. Google Voice automatically routes inbound calls based on his preferences, so a call to his Google Voice number coming from his child can be automatically directed to a personal cell phone, a call from his boss can be routed to his office cell phone, a call from his ex-wife can be routed to his house, and a call from Loan Shark Vinnie can go straight to voicemail.  

Google Voice’s inbox-style online interface lists calls received, placed, and missed. It also lists SMS messages, provides transcriptions of voice messages using Google’s proprietary speech engine, and extends the user’s online profile—and more specifically, his Google profile—into the phone channel. 

Already, individuals with an extensive online presence commonly rely on Google for email (Gmail), news feeds (Google News), blog feeds (Google Reader), blog content (Blogger), photos (Picasa Web), videos (YouTube), stocks (Google Finance), locations (My Location and Latitude via Google Maps), mobile devices (Android), and desktop operating systems (Google Chrome OS), which will be closely tied to Google Docs, Google’s cloud-based office software. Google aggregates all of this information under a single user profile. Adding the voice channel to the equation expands Google’s reach into an area that had not previously been in its purview.

Google is certainly in innovation mode and is aggressively introducing new features, like Google Voice, to make its services stickier for users. By doing this, it is amplifying the value of its advertising by leveraging data collected from different channels to increase quality and quantity in advertising across multiple touchpoints. In other words, Google is striving to find a balance of personalized and high-volume advertising across channels. 

Google Voice does not currently present a significant threat to carriers and incumbent telephony, switch, and UC vendors. However, online rumors hint that Google might combine Google Voice with its upcoming Web-based collaboration portal (Google Wave) to create a set of unified tools that compete with these vendors. During the next several years, as the number of Google Voice users increases, it is possible that Google will launch an enterprise flavor of Google Voice, and, if combined with Google Wave, it will undoubtedly change the competitive landscape.

Datamonitor provides more detailed and comprehensive studies of the speech market. For more information on Datamonitor’s research, please go to www.datamonitor.com, or email Daniel Hong at dhong@datamonitor.com.

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