All the talk about 'Google Voice'

A screen shot of the Google Voice homepage


Kai Ryssdal: If you want to get a hold of me during working hours you can call my office. After that, you can get me at home. I've got my cell phone with me almost all the time too unless I'm in the radio studio. It's convenient, I guess, if you don't mind trying three different 10-digit numbers. Or you could have me sign on for Google's latest offering in its quest for world domination. David Pogue did a write-up of the company's new voice product in The New York Times this morning. David, good to have you with us.

DAVID POGUE: Thanks so much.

Ryssdal: So here we are, Google has launched yet another revolutionizing product here. What is this thing?

POGUE: So it's called "Google Voice," and it started life two years ago as a startup called GrandCentral. Google bought it, and all the GrandCentral fans thought Google left if for dead because there was not a word about it, no enhancements for two years. And then today they shocked everybody by unveiling a much enhanced version.

Ryssdal: So in 30 seconds or less, what does it do for you?

POGUE: Basically it transforms your phone. It turns voice messages and text messages into far more useful entities. It starts by issuing a new phone number. That's the downside. You get a new number that you distribute to everybody you know. But when they call that all your phones ring at once: you cell phone, your home phone, your work phone, your yacht phone. So we get out of that ridiculous thing, oh, we tried you on your cell, now I'll try you at home. That thing is over. And what this also means is you get a single, unified voice mailbox that's everywhere. It's on the Web, it's on your cell phone, it's in your e-mail. And what I mean by that is, they actually transcribe voice mail messages left for you into texts.

Ryssdal: So as I understand it, no ads for now on Google Voice, right?

POGUE: No ads and no plans to make any. They are able to support the entire thing from another feature I haven't even mentioned, which is from any phone if you dial your own "Google Voice" number, you get these options. And one of them is press 2 to place a call. Calls in the United States are free. So this means you could pick up your home phone and make free long-distance calls. Calls to international locations are very cheap, they're like 2 cents a minute, 3 cents a minute, depending on the country.

Ryssdal: So this is voice over Internet, right?

POGUE: It is. That's right.

Ryssdal: Then what does that mean for companies that already do voice over Internet, like Skype, which has built a booming business?

POGUE: I don't think I would like to be one of the companies in the way of Google Voice right now. There are companies that, as you say, do Skype-ish things and connect your long-distance calls for very cheap, there are companies that turn your voice mails into transcribed texts. All of these companies are going to have to sweat it. They're going to have to get better or die.

Ryssdal: Now that everybody is all excited about this thing, we should say that you can't get it yet.

POGUE: The several hundred thousand people who are all GrandCentral members for the last two years are all being offered today the chance to upgrade to the new service. If you've never been a part of GrandCentral they say it's going to be a matter of weeks while they work out the kinks for this upgrading process and then start offering these new phone numbers.

Ryssdal: It all sounds great. But doesn't it somehow strike you as little too much to deal with for one simple phone call?

POGUE: Yes. I'm sure there's a downside to all this somewhere. Complexity is one. But obviously this is for people who already feel like all these phones are too complex. And another one that I'm hearing a lot from my readers of my Times' column this morning is: What about privacy? Isn't Google now having too much power, aren't they now listening in to our messages blah, blah, blah? To which I say is dude, if you're going to worry about that, it's way too late. How do you know Verizon and At&T and Sprint aren't listening in to your messages right now? They could all be listening to your messages. You'll never now.

Ryssdal: David Pogue writes a tech column for The New York Times. David, thanks a lot.

POGUE: My pleasure.

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The reason Google hardly ever needs to buy its own advertising is that people like Mr. Pogue give it all the free advertising it needs, and Marketplace is more than happy to oblige.

Mr. Pogue sadly dodged the privacy question by using the "Hey everyone else is doing it, so it can't be that bad" tactic. This reveals his bias and indicates a lack of thorough analysis.

The problem is that while the phone companies might be collecting information about us, they are collecting a particular slice of information. Google is wanting to collecting everything they can about us: search habits, browsing habits, phone call habits, email, health histories, blog authoring, you name it. That universal attempt to learn everything about us is scarier than anything the phone companies or even Microsoft are doing.

This is all pretty cool... But I've been using most of these features for the past 14 years in a product called Accessline. One number is my home, fax, mobile, office, pager, home2, fax2, mobile2, office2, up to 99 numbers - and one integrated voice mail box and the ability to dial out automatically, reach my party, then come right back to my voicemail where I left off without hanging up. So, those features don't count as new. They've been around a while.

What is new is the transcribe (although Accessline supports text-to-landline, not quite the same), and whatever Googlishly Cool things are coming. But Pogue is right - it will prove too complex for most people, if history is accurate.

A small note to Mr. Pogue: Actually, we do know if Verizon and AT&T are tapping our phones lines. They are. Or at least, they were, during the Bush administration, at the behest of the government. Some companies refused the government's request--Quest was one, I'm not sure about Sprint. They broke the law to pass our private conversations over to the government. We know this because Congress insisted (in the face of widespread public disapproval) on passing a law last June that retroactively immunized these companies from the legal consequences of having broken the law.

Since those companies got off scott-free for committing felonies, I rather doubt they've seen the error of their ways. And since then-Senator Obama voted for that bill to relieve phone companies of the onerous burden of obeying the law, I see little reason for all that to change.

Long story short: no need to wonder. We do know. The phone companies are, in all likelihood, tapping your lines.

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