Five Features We Want to See in Google Voice

Google Voice is one of those great services none of us knew we needed until it came along. Now that it’s here, we’d like to suggest a few changes that could shape it into an even better productivity tool.

Why offer up our unsolicited advice on where Google should next look to improve its phone-controlling service? Because we, and many of our readers, spend a good chunk of time thinking up dream uses for our computers and gadgets, and we want to see those dreams come true. To firm them up, and make a geeky, early-adopter service something everyone can benefit from, we offer up these five features and fixes we’d like to see Google Voice take on.

Not quite sure what Google Voice can do already? Take a tour around our screenshot-filled first look, and read our take on who does and doesn’t need Google Voice.

1. Less lag

In two separate phone interviews for Lifehacker, I called a Google Voice user from my Google Voice number. In both calls, the audio quality was sufficient and the call recording worked perfectly. When the interviews transitioned into chat and niceties, our sentences tumbled into crosstalk and start-and-stop sentences. It’s variable and sometimes negligible, but it’s very jarring to feel like you’re making a Skype call in 2004 on a cell phone you bought last month.

This audio clip details what I’m talking about. It’s two snippets of Google Voice users talking, taken from a recent interview:

Some Voice users havent noticed much, or even any, lag on their calls, but as more and more people are invited into the service, it could grow from an occasional annoyance to a brand-crushing flaw—just ask an AT&T customer about their dropped call frequency. Its an issue that only Google can fix, and they almost certainly know about it. We can only hope it’s addressed before a nuts-and-bolts issue tarnishes an otherwise elegant cloud service.

2. Multi-recipient SMS and MMS support

Being free is a killer feature of Google Voice’s SMS. It’s one of the major reasons Apple and AT&T killed Googles Voice app for iPhones, because getting customers to pay real money for a data service thats essentially free is important enough to incur the wrath of the tech community—even certain steadfast iPhone fans. At the moment, though, Google Voice doesn’t offer two features that the cheapest phone on a pre-paid wireless plan can provide.

In the case of MMS—generally, text messages with pictures, audio, or video—Google Voices capabilities at the moment are behind the first-generation iPhones. Theres no message to sender or receiver that MMS isnt supported, or a link for the receiver to ‘pick up’ the data. MMS messages to Google Voice users just dont go through, dying somewhere between a data farm and a cell phone. That leaves your friends disappointed you didnt catch their pic with a 3 Wolf Moon shirt, and puts the responsibility on you to ask friends to selectively send multimedia messages to your email.

The straight-up SMS messages that do work work well, but they cant be sent to more than one recipient from any Voice interface, at least without a quick-fingered copy-paste action. Our guess is that Google might be waiting until they can put a Gmail-level spam-blocking system in place, but it will be opened up eventually. As for MMS messages, lets hope that Google can at least catch up to AT&T.

3. Tight, smart integration with Google services

Google’s web applications already take some heat for inconsistent visual styles, as well as being strangely disconnected in their contact and identity use. Voice would be a great chance to start meshing them all together.

Imagine reading a message in Gmail and replying to it with a quick SMS or phone call, if you have that contact’s phone number entered. In more exciting fashion, you could record a call with somebody, get a transcription (perhaps with a ‘Pro’ account or pay-per-word plan, if free doesn’t work), then push it into a Google Document to work with. Contacts you invite to a group event from Google Calendar could be SMS messaged to RSVP or for a reminder, with a Maps link or directions to the location. These are things anyone can accomplish using multiple Google services, of course, but if Voice is meant to centralize your phone life using Google’s cloud, it shouldn’t require having multiple tabs open to monitor inboxes that are different, but can be processed from the same set of contacts.

4. Universal voice dialing

This one’s not all that hard, presumably, and something Google can benefit from. Some phones already have voice dialing, but the features and reliability vary widely. For those using Google Voice with non-cellphones, clunky smartphones, or internet-calling headsets, having Voice connect the call would be a pretty nice convenience, and one that Google’s voice recognition servers can already pull off. It wouldn’t necessarily be 100-percent reliable, but it would help Google’s transcription software to train specifically on names, a notable weakness in its voicemail transcriptions.

In our soft-focus vision of the future, you plug in alternate, easy to understand alternate names for your contacts (‘Joe from the office’) and use them when Google asks who you want to call when you dial into your Voice number. In the same way Gmail frees you from having to re-learn how to use various email clients, Voice should free you from having to train all your phones on the proper pronunciation of your spouse’s name.

5. Leave voice notes for yourself (and email while you drive)

Another quick, simple tweak that Google could totally pull off by next weekend, or at least fairly soon, is a voice note feature. Just add an option to ‘leave yourself a note’ to the prompts you hear when you call your own Google Voice number. Since you can set up certain phones to go right to those prompts, with or without a PIN, it would be a convenient place to leave oneself voicemail, and implementing direct recording access into Voice’s mobile apps would be even better. It’s something note/to-do service reQall already does with its iPhone app, and if Google really wanted to run wild with it, they could replicate just a little bit of the functionality of voice service Jott. They’ve already got your contact names, email address and SMS number, so saying ‘Email David … Call you when I get home’ isn’t a blue-sky dream.

Little niggling remainders

In short order, here’s the stuff that just deserves a line or two:

  • Adjust the number of rings to voicemail: Otherwise, you have to figure out how to set all your Voice-connected phones to ring longer than Voice’s wait period (five rings, we think).
  • Google Apps support: For those whose main Google Voice use is for business, and so Voice accounts don’t have to be tied to personal Google accounts and their contacts.
  • Number porting: It’s actually a big niggling thing, but we’ve already discussed how it could change the adoption process, and that Google is rumored to be working on it. For now, having to hand out a new number to contacts is just a notable inconvenience.
  • Allow account setups without SMS-capable phone: For those who want to give the service a ‘soft’ try-out, and to continue GrandCentral’s voicemail for the homeless project.

Those are our offerings on what Google Voice could be doing better, but we’ve only got a few Voice accounts, and imaginations, to work with. Tell us what you’d like to see in your dream version of Voice in the comments.

(Via Lifehacker.)

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