It’s taken 21 months—almost two years—but GrandCentral (“One number for all your phones, for life”) has finally gotten an upgrade (and a new name). I’m totally excited, and happy that the long-awaited upgrade (previously known as GrandCentral 2.0) is finally here. Meet Google Voice: “One number for all your calls and SMS”.
Yes, Google Voice added several new features. One of the things that always, always bugged me about GrandCentral was the fact that my number couldn’t receive or send text messages. Well, now it can. According to TechCrunch’s expansive overview, the same technology that powers the SMS in Gmail Chat Labs experiment (known as Gateway) is used in Google Voice.
Other new features include voicemail transcription (sounds promising), very specific per-contact settings (definitely a trap for us OCD types), a completely overhauled interface (w00t! Less Flash!), conference calling (cool factor = 100), and easy dialing out via the phone interface.
I have to stop and talk about the dial-out feature. First of all, it was nearly impossible to dial out from GrandCentral unless you either had a new voicemail from the person you wanted to call (so you could press ‘2’ after it to call them back) or had access to a Web-enabled device. Simply dialing out wasn’t considered. Now, in Google Voice, there’s a “press ‘2’” option right in the main menu! Finally!
Also, under GrandCentral’s auspices, calling out was free during beta, with the shadow of paying per minute after testing was over looming in the future. Google changed that in Voice, which allows free calls anywhere in the United States. International calls are at greatly reduced rates (compared to conventional long-distance). Each new user gets a free $1.00 credit toward international calls, though I don’t know if they’ll keep that up once sign-ups are opened completely—it could be something just for migrating GC users.
Migration, Stranded Data, and Missing Features
Existing GrandCentral users get (or will get this weekend) a migration link at the top of their grandcentral.com inboxes, which will begin the automated migration of a GrandCentral number to Google Voice. The process was pretty painless, even smoother than the transition to the new FeedBurner system last month.
However, much data is not migrated. Most of the settings are reset, custom greetings and names must be re-recorded, old voicemails/calls/recorded calls are left behind on grandcentral.com, and contacts must be transferred manually by exporting GrandCentral’s Address Book to CSV and importing it into Google Contacts. The automatic merging of imported contacts only merged about half of the duplicates in my set, and I had very few contacts to deal with. That was fortunate, because the rest of the merges had to be found and made manually.
In the future, I hope Google will provide a utility to migrate old voicemails from GrandCentral, especially if grandcentral.com is eventually shut down or redirected. Currently, the top of my GrandCentral inbox says:
Since you have migrated to the Google Voice Preview, you can now access your new messages and update your settings by logging in at google.com/voice. Feel free to continue to access grandcentral.com for your older voicemail messages. We’re glad you dropped by.
That’s inconvenient. But really, how often do I visit old voicemails? Not much. Besides, a lot of them were inexplicably lost… Their listings are present, but they can’t be played; I’m guessing the files somehow went missing. I’m not happy about that, but… at least it hasn’t happened again.
A minor annoyance is the loss of custom ringback tones, the sounds played to a caller while the phone is ringing on your end. (Google does have a suggestion to bring this back on the Google Voice Feature Suggestion page.)
Of course, Google Voice is not without holes. It can’t forward to numbers that require extensions (I don’t need it now, but might in the future). It can’t take an existing number and turn it into a Google number (which would be eminently useful, I think, for my mother).
There are also no apps for iPhone or Android yet (and I don’t care about Blackberry, kthx). But the feature suggest page I mentioned above has all these and more. I’ve suggested about 75% of the features currently on the list, including integration with Gmail and Google Talk. I’m hopeful that these and more ideas (like the two I posted on Twitter) will be implemented, and sooner rather than later.
Speaking of future ideas, Lifehacker ran a short post yesterday speculating that the reserved “Voicemail” label in Gmail is for integration with Voice. It’s actually for Google Talk voicemails (GTalk has a calling feature that I almost never use because of various technological or locational constraints), but it could certainly be useful for Voice messages as well, if Gmail and Voice are ever integrated.
Despite the inconveniences, I think I’m going to like the service. It’s a vast improvement upon GrandCentral; in fact, TechCrunch’s Leena Rao says (in the overview mentioned above), “Google is finally bringing us the voice service that was promised back in 2006.” I agree; the old GrandCentral was convenient, but Google Voice promises to be many times as useful.