Why I'm still frustrated with Google Voice

Google should be aggressively developing Google Voice for Android and iPhone. Despite its frequent issues, I can't quit it.

Google Voice on Ice Cream Sandwich
Google Voice on Ice Cream Sandwich. Google

Remember those fateful words that no kid ever wanted to hear from their teacher: You've got so much po-tential? "Potential" is a compliment when you're just starting out in your field, and veiled disappointment after you've been in it for years. The sentiment describes exactly how I feel about Google Voice .

Let me just say that I've been using Google Voice on mobile since the apps first premiered for Android and iPhone -- and I continue to use it every day on both platforms. In fact, I depend on it for my job.

Googel Voice logo
Google

As a cell phone reviewer, I'm constantly testing new phones. Google Voice gives me a centralized place to access my family and friends' calls and texts. Since they only see the message or incoming call, it doesn't matter which device I use to reach out.

Google Voice has a ton of features, many of them exceedingly useful, like call forwarding, free texts to the U.S. and Canada, visual voice-mail transcription, and international texting.

Yet messaging delays, lack of MMS support, the iPhone app's instability, and the Android app's incomplete integration into most devices weigh it down (Sprint's Android phones are a partial exception for the last point.) As for those tragicomic garbled voice-mail transcriptions I've spoken about before, I've simply come to accept them.

Hurry up, Google
To make my disappointments more specific, the iPhone version tends to delay text delivery, and has been known to freeze (Google says a bug fix solved the issue). A recurring bug has me retyping text replies more often that I should after dropping the cursor.

Android is where Google Voice should really shine, but it's frustrating that visual voice mail and texts don't appear in every Android phone's native messaging app or call log. (Note: Google is wetting a toe by adding voice-mail playback to Ice Cream Sandwich phones.)

The Android version also lacks the iPhone app's terrific interface in the Quick Dial screen, which lets you program favorite people, and which pulls together a list of your most recent connections for faster redialing. It really is heads and shoulders above the bland Android inbox.

Mostly, it's the slow pace of development that irks me. The majority of changes to the Android and iPhone changelogs are bug fixes, which suggests that Google isn't putting as many resources into the mobile apps as I feel it should.

This isn't to suggest that the Google Voice team has remained idle. As I said, they did just integrate voice mail into the phone's native call log for Android 4.0. They also recently turned on offline text queuing for Android, and slipped the Google Voice platform into Google+ Hangouts for the desktop.

I admit that I have an atypical use case (e.g., for testing purposes, I never make my Google Voice the default calling-out number on Android phones), so I read the Google Voice forums and further, I asked my Twitter and Google+ followers what they love and hate about Google Voice on their given platforms. Below are some of the most representative responses.

Android

Quick Dial and Recents fields on Google Voice for iOS are terrifically useful. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

  • Love: voice transcriptions. Hate: Can't text with other apps. Also I wish somehow Google Voice could indicate whether a call is coming in through your Google Voice # instead of mobile #.
  • Google Voice still acts like a third-party app; texts and voice mails are kept separate and not integrated with the phone at all.
  • The transcription is usually accurate enough that I get what I need to know. In rare cases when I want to listen to the voice mail, the time slider at the bottom allows me to jump to the part I need, unlike typical voice-mail systems that only allow you to reply the entire message from the start.
  • I've been able to send emergency texts to people when I forget my phone by borrowing someone's Web browser. Love being able to set up custom voice-mail greetings for certain contacts. Making calls from my number from any phone by calling my number and putting in my personal code.
  • Frequently, when someone calls my Google Voice number, my phone doesn't even ring (yes it's set up right, it works sometimes). But I do love the ability to listen to my messages from anywhere.

iPhone

  • Love free SMS, device independence (desktop, iPhone, iPad), landline option (where iPhone has no signal), contact mgmt. Don't like software options, minor troubles with SMS/dialing in low data env, lack of integration with native apps.
  • The Google GV app can be buggy and lacks management features. It doesn't load texts reliably, but has the best 'flow'.
  • I use to save on texting to non-iOS ppl. Clunky, no MMS, bad threading. But worth it cuz I save ~$25/mo. Basic but effective.
  • I love calling Canada for free. I just use my minutes.
  • I hate that I can't have multiple GV numbers come to my one phone.

Not all Google's fault

The Google Voice inbox on Android Ice Cream Sandwich phones. Google
Not every complaint is Google's fault. Last week I addressed some of my own Google Voice issues with Vincent Paquet, Group Product Manager for Google Voice.

He explained that because of Apple's restrictions, Google Voice on iPhone must send text messages through IP (Internet protocol, the IP in VoIP), rather than through the carrier's network, which uses the voice channel. As a result, iPhone messages could legitimately come in slower. If you choose to also receive SMS messages through your iPhone message inbox, you could get texts faster, but you'll also receive duplicate messages.

"The Android app allows you to actually integrate with the native calling experience," said Paquet. "That's something that's unfortunately not available to us from iOS."

When I asked why the Android app lagged behind the iPhone app when it comes to quick contacts, Paquet said that the Google Voice team designed the iOS app as a destination app. Since on Android you can make outgoing calls through Google Voice by default, the team chose to make it more "transparent." Besides, Paquet told me, the feedback that his team receives most has to do with features integration, not visual improvement.

Paquet wouldn't share Google's road map for Voice. "If I tell you the road map, I tell you our plans." That's enough to know that Google Voice development is marching along, and that the team is tackling the most clamored-for features.

At the end of the day, although Google Voice becomes more useful with every release, it nevertheless needs to pick up the pace. But oh, does Google Voice ever have potential.

 

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