Google Voice changes Telephony Forever
We are bombarded with new technologies on a daily basis, but few of them make lasting change in our lives. For me, the game changers are the ones that dramatically alter some key aspect of how we perform a daily task. In some cases, it's not the invention itself, but the particular implementation that makes the lasting change. The cell phone is one of those game changers, separating physical location from the ability to have a voice conversation. Hotmail is another example of a game changer, because while email existed for years, Hotmail made getting an email account easy and free, eliminating the idea of tying your email address to an ISP. When Google Voice became available to everyone on 22 June 2010, it moved into this class of game changing technology.
Google Voice gets this distinction because it separates the phone number, your personal address for voice communication, from the device. It's a number you can take with you anywhere, no matter which carrier you use or where you are in the world. It has some other cool features like putting your voicemail in your inbox and call rejection based on rules, but the real win is separating the phone number from the device. Google Voice is to the phone what Hotmail was to email.
The technology behind Google Voice is nothing new. I have used variations of the technology for over 10 years. The difference with Google Voice is it's free and it's easy to configure. The way it works is you sign up for an account and then tell Google Voice which device or devices you want to route calls to from a simple web interface. You can configure rules that only allow the number to ring through at specific times of day. Once you start handing out your Google Voice number as the primary number for people to reach you, you can change cell phone carriers, change home phone carriers, use software phone solutions, all the time knowing that people will still be able to reach you.
Don't get me wrong, Google Voice isn't perfect. I have been on Google Voice calls with people where they sounded like they were speaking on a tin can. There is still a place for pay services like RingCentral, which tie in additional features like faxing and routing calls to multiple mailboxes. But for the individual or small business with one or two employees, Google Voice provides an opportunity to get true number portability (not the kind that makes you switch from one carrier to the next) and the flexibility to make use of the right communication devices no matter where you happen to be.
Now we just need someone to invent a data plan that's free from carrier lock in. This current trend of tying a unique data account to Netbooks, laptops, and now the iPad is the 3G carriers attempt to lock you in to more data than you really need. If you have an iPad and an iPhone you now need 2 data plans instead of just one that works for both. The MiFi devices and the Sprint Overdrive the closest thing we have to full portability in connectivity, but even those have thier limits. As much as possible, we should be able to have a data plan unencumbered by the devices allowed to connect to it. At this point, we're limited only by the fact that all portable data plans require specific hardware to connect to a network and some kind of power source for that hardware. With Google having WiFi tests at airport locations around the country, maybe they will be the answer yet again.