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This is My One Number - for just now or forever ?
Posted: September 6, 2009

A few weeks ago I got a new phone number. It's going to be My One Number. The number I will put on my business card - the one and only number to reach me. It's a Google Voice number ! Great concept of a virtual personal assistant that manages your incoming phone calls.

I had a service just like it 8 years ago. Unfortunately the company did not make. It did cost $20 per month on top of your standard phone bill. This time it is FREE and people put their names on waiting list. Will it last this time ?

In case you wonder, I already have three phone numbers: my home, the office, and a cell phone number! Why another? One without a real phone attached to it. Let's take a look at what it does, what it doesn't, and whether it would work for you.

With this new service Google is challenging the incumbent phone carriers. It's a One Number service that consolidates all of your current phone numbers into one. None of the big U.S. carriers has it. Though they could all offer it - there is no secret sauce, no patents to worry abouy. GoogleVoice is free and let's you make free calls nationwide.

With this new number I can forward an incoming call to any of my three phones without handing people my home or cell number. And I can set it up in a way that only people who got the number from me can get through! Everybody else gets straight to voice mail or is blocked. This could be my one number forever - again. I had a One Number service just like it and it disappeared with the company in 2002. Will Google keep it running?

A little Bit of History
After more than a century the phone still does the same things for us: we can make calls and we get calls. Making a call is easy. With 10 buttons we can call anywhere around the world. Receiving calls however, became a chore over the years. Since everybody in the world can call us, everyone seems to call us. People we know and people we don't. And with three different phone numbers the rings can add up. And then ther's the feeling of missing a call, since we can only be at one location. So we miss calls. The mobile phone helped - did it?.

Let's be honest, what makes them tick for many of us is more the freedom to make calls from anywhere and anytime than answering calls.

These days we look first at the CallerID before we answer. Being call-selective became part of our life. Blocked number ? - hah - go straight to voice mail with the push of a button. That's what we do, that's where we stand. Your phone would ring, you scan the screen, and decide: take it or voice mail. And it can ring at any time. Isn't there a way to make it a better [user] experience - again?

The Personal Phone Assistant
In the late 90's a few small carriers put magic back into phone numbers. They offered a phone service package that provided the following for an additional fee: a One Number service. This is what you would get:

  • A new phone number you could give out and put on your business card - avoiding to give them your cell phone number, which now becomes your very private number again.
  • A forwarding service that you controlled and that would call you at your numbers when a call comes in - office, home, or cell, or all together, and that let you decide to either take the call, listen to the caller while he's leaving his message, or send it straight to voice mail.
  • A voice mail service that send you an email notification.
  • A web site on which you could see all calls that had come in and you have made.
  • You could listen to your voice mails.
  • You could receive faxes and see them on your computer screen (web page or email) and forward them with a phone call.
  • You could transfer a phone call that began on your office phone to your cell phone and get home in time for dinner.
  • You could make phone calls with a call package that introduced flat-rate, long-distance service to the US nine years ago.

Making calls with the service however, had one little glitch - you had to dial into your account first. Similar to making a call with a phone card. The reason for this was and still is that the big, incumbent carriers (the Bell's) are owning the last mile of wire, the physical connection to your house and phone and they are not willing to share that wire with "anybody" else.

The IP-Phone
Innovation helped to get out of the dilemma described in the last point. Some of these small carrier startups employed a new breed of phones - IP Phones. Each new subscriber could request one of these phones if they had an always-on broadband Internet connection. The new phone connected to the user's home router and - voila - acted just like the "old" phone: it had a dial-tone and made calls on the new carriers network.

Most of these carriers stayed under the radar because of their size. They added virtual PBX services for small businesses but their additional cost and need for a broadband connection slowed their adaptation on a broad basis. VoIP telephony with basic services however grew. Today the biggest VoIP carriers are Comcast and Vonage. They emerged as big competitors to the old "Bell's". They use the always-on broadband connection to get into our homes and both give us a modem, that is the equivalent of the IP-Phone described above. And both do just about the same than the old Bell's - just a bit cheaper.

Enter Google Voice
Google makes its money in advertising in a big way. They are so good at it that they are able to provide us - the consumer - with quite a few free services. To name a few there is Google Search, Google Docs, Sketchup, Google Maps, Picasa, Google Earth, and now Google Voice.
For years now we "reach out" to the company every time we use their free search. If they would know where we are, they could provide us with very specific, person-matched and location-based services. The missing piece that closes this gap is the cell phone.

Years ago it seemed that Google was creating just that. Rumors about a Google phone started flying around. Google was buying up big chunks of dark fiber (unused fiber-optic cables ciss-crossing the country and left-over from the frantic out-builts of the era). Then, in 2007 Google bought GrandCentral - a 2005 startup that was providing phone services as described above.
The Google phone didn't make it but its operating system Android is a powerful piece of software that will be found in quite a few smart phones by the end of 2009. And Google Voice is out and about with even more features:

  • voice mail transcriptions send to you via email with the related audio,
  • text messaging with notification of voice mails,
  • controlling who's calls will ring your phone at what time using your "white list",
  • smart phone apps (on Blackberries not iPhones (!?!)) that seem to allow you not to use or to bypass the carrier services (virtual voice mail and texting.)

There is one little glitch. Google Voice works fine in receiving calls and forwarding them to your cell, home or any other phone in the States. And when you are using your cell phone minutes - it is good for the carriers.

Making phone calls via Google Voice still has that bit of awkwardness though, it's like a phone card: Call into your account first, select the call choice and then enter the number you want to call. And remember - you are still using your minutes - good for the carriers.

However - if your smart phone would have an Internet connection - either via WiFi or through your phone's carriers network - your phone could become an IP-Phone and you could send text messages via Google Voice. Meaning free nation-wide phone calls and texting - bad for the carriers.

And that's the reason why the Google Voice iPhone App is now under "re-evaluation."

So - until Google gets its hands on a carrier license (Sprint) essentially becoming a carrier, or finds an open and progressive one (Verizon ;-) - try again - see footnote), the Google Voice service has that little handicap. But for most people the incoming call management features by far outshine what our current carriers provide us with and that is bright enough for me to sign up with Google Voice.

Every time I give my phone number out it's gonna be: "Here is My One Number to reach me."

Here is how to get a Google Voice number. Sign up for a free account - or log-on.

(*) Verizon? - one never knows, Here is a carrier with the highest number of dorky phones out there. As of September 09 only two of its phones have WiFi. Will they wake up or change a bit? I would switch from ATT to Verizon if they would carry the iPhone. But an iPhone without WiFi. No thanks.



Background Info
MyOneNumber.Com was the landing web page for a personal phone assistance service that between the years 2000 and 2002 provided an answering and calling service to it's users that was as rich and advanced as Google Voice is today. Key differences: it was run by a small telephony carrier and way to early to find enough customers for this type of service. On top it was a paid service - the pain points the system would eliminate weren't high enough for many.
For 2 years I was able to enjoy the "pre-Google Voice". Then it was over ...

Four years ago a small startup picked up the idea of letting their customers decide and control when their phone - home, office or cell would ring. GrandCentral. Just before I was about to put that number on my business card it disappeared again.

Google had bought them! There was silence for almost 2 years. They are back with a new name - Google Voice.

Their goal: re-inventing the Phone Service! See the story on the left.

Then again - there's nothing new with Google Voice. The concept is around since the 90's. Google probably bought GrandCentral because they had a carrier license and Google - at the time - had plans to get into that business themselves. Remember - there was talk about a Google phone in 2007.

If ATT would be smart, they could easily add the Google Voice features to their cell and land line service and take the wind out of Google's sail.


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