Google Voice was recently sprung from a long stay in digital purgatory. Google unveiled a refreshed design for the mobile apps and website that updated the look and dropped in a few new features.
It was long overdue. Google Voice was so old and neglected, the last version right before the update looked like this:
Google Voice now is modern and right in line with Material Design standards. You also now get support for group messages, adding images with MMS, and quick replies for those running Android Nougat.
The real question, however, is if Google Voice finally lives up to the promise made when the service was unveiled eight years ago: to be your one and only phone number.
A little history
When Google Voice launched in 2009, phone communication was entirely different. Many people needed a 3x5 card to list all the phone numbers they had: an office line, company-assigned mobile device, a personal cell phone, and a home landline. It was a mess, and very easy to miss a call.
Google Voice tried to fix all this by offering you one phone number that could ring any of your devices simultaneously. It could also handle SMS messages (limited MMS came much later) so that you could, in theory, keep all your communication in one place. There is also centralized voicemail, so any of those phones enable someone to leave a message for you, retrievable from anywhere via app on Android, iOS, or the web.
As time and mobile technology improved, Google Voice didn’t quite keep up. The service languished without any major updates, with the most significant move being a half-hearted merger with Hangouts. That’s likely bound to reverse, now that Google is pivoting Hangouts towards the enterprise.
A fresh coat of paint
The new Android app looks good and is easy to navigate, keeping consistency with Google’s Material Design guidelines. The messaging section takes takes a lot of ideas from Google’s Messenger SMS app, using color variation for each conversation. There are two other sections, one for voicemail and the other for phone calls.
Just as it did before, the voicemail will transcribe your messages so you can just read what the caller said. In the past, Google Voice has sometimes given ridiculously bad transcripts, although the last few I received were actually pretty reliable.
Unlike on the iOS version, there’s no dialer. For that you’ll need to use the Hangouts dialer or just use the phone app. During setup Google Voice will ask if you want to use your Voice number to make all, some, or none of the calls.
While the makeover is nice, there isn’t much in the way of killer new features or must-haves to make you switch away from your current number.
One of the areas that stands out in need of future enhancement is messaging. I rely on the ability to change the color for each contact to keep conversations straight, and it’s something you can’t do with Google Voice. There’s also no way to import your existing text messages into Google Voice, which means you have to go with a clean slate if you want to transition to making your Voice number as your main one.
Also, if I had Gmail open on the desktop and someone called my Voice number, sometimes the call would come through Hangouts on Gmail instead of my phone. Call quality was good, and it is convenient to be able to check your voicemail and call log from your PC, but the inconsistency was a little weird.
Most people just don’t leave voicemails anymore, opting to send a text instead of realizing you’ll call back once you see the missed number. I have friends and colleagues who explicitly state on their voicemail message something akin to, “don’t leave a message. I don’t check this.”
So, who’s it for?
At this point, there’s nothing compelling that makes me want to abandon my main number and go full-time with Google Voice. You’re most likely to feel this way if you have a Pixel, as Google’s dialer app smartly blocks spam and puts Google search right into the dialer and caller ID.
Google Voice is most useful for those who want a second number for a small business or as a secondary number to give out to people who you’d rather not have your main line.
Where Google Voice can succeed is by building in superior features. RCS messaging would be nice, and recently there was a rumor of VOIP support and Wi-Fi calling. A flurry of updates and new features may make it interesting, but it’s unclear what exactly the long-term plan is for the service. Between Google Voice, Allo, and Hangouts, the company’s messaging strategy is still as unclear as ever.