Hands-on with Google Voice for the iPhone

iPhone users get somewhat better Google Voice access, still pine for a real app.

Rafe Needleman
Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
2 min read
The new Google Voice Web app can dial out directly and make the receiving phone see your Voice number in the Caller ID, but resorts to a minor telephone hack to do so. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

Google Voice just got a little better on the iPhone, thanks a new Web site for iPhone users, google.com/voice/m. As iPhone users will painfully recall, Apple last year rejected Google's iPhone-native Google Voice app, leaving those who wanted to use Google Voice with what was at first a bare and limited Web-based app. But one of the big advantages of the new HTML 5 spec, which the iPhone's Safari browser supports, is that it lets Web developers bring more application-like functionality to Web apps. The new site is proof of that. (News story)

The new Web service works on iPhones running the 3.0 operating system. It also works on on Palm's WebOS for user with the Palm Pre.

The new mobile-specific Web site for Google Voice is app-like in key ways. It's fast and it can use local storage, so it doesn't have to load in your entire Google Voice inbox every time you launch it. There's a dialer and a directory (tied in to your Google account) for looking people up. And, finally, you don't have to deal with Google Voice's dial-around service (where, to make a connection, the Google Voice service dials both the person you are calling as well as your phone). Through some telco trickery, Google Voice dials out from your phone, and displays your Voice account's phone number as the caller ID the phone of the person you're calling.

Google Voice gives you an integrated inbox, with both transcribed voicemails (transcription quality still varies) and SMS messages. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

The app does a nice job of displaying transcribed voicemails, missed calls, and SMS messages in one inbox. You can also send SMS messages from the app for free, which trumps AT&T and its ridiculous fees on text messages.

But even a great Web-based app still can't get deep into your iPhone the way you'll want it to. The new Google Voice app can't access your phone's native directory, for example. The Google Voice native apps available for Android and BlackBerry can also highlight words in transcribed voicemails as they play them back. On the iPhone mobile Web site, voicemails play through the browser's linked media player with no visual cues.

If you have a Google Voice account and an iPhone, this new site makes using Voice a much better experience than it was before. But Android and BlackBerry users still get much neater, better-integrated real apps. There remain some things that even good Web sites cannot do.