Google Voice & Why Free Makes Me Nervous

I know that enterprise services like SalesForce.com have ramped up their game to deliver reliability. They, and others like them are entirely different. They may be hosted afar, or even cloud-based, but they’re not free. They know that to sustain their business they need to deliver a reliable service. And they know that every single account, their entire business, hinges on that very fact. Not so with Google. They’re considerably less focused.

Our hosted PBX provider, OnSIP has been extremely reliable over the past two years. This has convinced me that hosted services are acceptable in some situations, even for business telephony. But I’m still very careful about support. Reliability is key, but responsiveness of support during failures is even more critical. That’s an issue that can be impacted as a service provider grows, so it needs to be watched over time.

In a troubled economy everyone wants a good deal, but sometimes the best deal is not the cheapest. Any company can sell a service for a low price, but does the support effort scale proportionally? What good is getting the best price if it also results in limited support hours, too few staff or no means of direct contact?

Providing good support costs real money. Support staff worth having must be recruited, trained and then (hopefully) retained. We still maintain Covad DSL in the face of numerous, mostly cheaper alternatives, largely because their first-tier support staff can actually spell IP. Also, in five years I’ve never had a problem with them that couldn’t be resolved quickly by first tier support.

Then there’s the Google Voice service itself. It’s pretty good. But it’s also lacking in some fundamental ways. For example, why is Gizmo5 the only SIP service I can use in call forwarding? That’s just lame.

alt_vvx1500_2_500I might like to use GV directly with my Insert-Your-Favorite-SIP-Desk-Phone-Here desk phone. Interacting through Gizmo5 just adds an unnecessary layer of complexity. Amongst other things, greater support for SIP interaction would open the door to wideband audio and help hasten the adoption of SIP URIs as an alternative to phone numbers in daily life. It would also allow integration with Asterisk or FreeSwitch in a manner that was more than a clever hack.

GV is in some ways elevating the telecom experience of the average person to be more like that of someone working in a large enterprise with a UC solution in place. That’s certainly commendable. Yet various aspects of GV tend to indicate that they’re still working to emulate the telecom services of the past, not seeking to define how we’ll use voice in the future.

For Google Voice to hold much interest for me they have to deal with issues like porting numbers, service level agreements (SLA) and giving customers a means of contacting real people when there is a problem. All these are the hallmarks of what could be a paid version of the service, a “Pro” version of you like.

In reality, it’ll need to be a more compelling solution than what we have in place right now. They have a lot of the pieces in place, but they still have some distance to go. Until then, and in my world,  it’s merely a novelty.

Update: John Hermansen of GIPS has a very interesting post called How Does Google Voice Make Money?

9 thoughts on “Google Voice & Why Free Makes Me Nervous”

  1. I understand your point, but maybe it was not made for your. I understand some people may want to pay for an email service instead of using a free one like hotmail / gmail or even host his on google apps. Its a matter of choice, and financial situation I beleive.

    Also, a free service does not mean outage with no support and paid service does not mean no outage with support. I have know companies with big names with paid service such as comcast etc who have experienced outage. And there support when you finally got them is not the best in the world. Free is not really the problem for you, because why would you rely on wordpress for your blog? And didnt your hosting provider had an outage lately? Is it a free service you have? Or maybe cheap?

    A real estate customer I had a couple of years ago made me switch them to google apps for their email, because their provider had an outage for a couple of hours and they missed many emails, since then they have no problems.

    As for integration with Asterisk or FreeSwitch, you should be patient and see what will come next. You know google is not sitting watching you use the service, they are still developing it, adding new features, so why not wait to see what will come next.

    I think you can use google voice in many many ways that can be beneficial to you, nobody said it was a business grade service, and also keep in mind who ever your phone carrier was, you might experience some down times, it happens to everybody. So far I am enjoying my google voice number, and it works great for me. And it makes me avoid trouble with my girl friend, because she’s jealous, so new girls I meet, I give them my gv number and I have control on when they can call me or not 🙂

    1. Given the services that I have in place already GV really doesn’t fit into my world. Those services were selected on a best-of-breed basis, considering cost, features & support.

      Yes, I hired a low cost host (Bluehost) for my blog. In general they’ve been pretty good. Not bad for $6/mo. I’d like a dedicated server. That would increase my uptime considerably, but cannot justify the expense.

      I too know someone that went to Google Apps instead of buying a pallet of new MS Office licenses. They are generally happy. But they have suffered outages, and when they occur they are essentially helpless.

      I gather based on your last paragraph that you don’t use it for line-of-business either?

  2. GV is currently positioned as a consumer service and consumers should consider it like anything else. They need to make some changes to the offering to be right for business, including the ability to port IN numbers as most businesses are not willing to change their number.

    I look at the college students returning for fall startup. Many of them will have out of state cell phones. Some may bring their Vonage or other service with them they already had. Some will order a new line from Qwest or Comcast – but the reality is for free they should order a Google Voice number and point them to whatever number(s) they want.

    I don’t think Google Voice requires a number, it could just be a free email service.

    I think it is a wonderful option and I think it is going to change some rules. I changed my Google Voice phone number and ordered a vanity number instead. $10, self service, easy, and instant. This is not a bad thing for our industry to see/watch.

    I expect Google Voice to be relaunched with a business edition with a variety of new features. I have blogged about this a few times. I expect that service to be a very interesting game changer. I think the current service is a very interesting curiosity – a preview? a foreshadow? Wait and see.

    Dave Michels

  3. I would also hesitate to use a free service for anything that is more than a hobby. As I see it, the problem is that, ultimately, a service like Google Voice cannot be provided for free, but if I don’t pay for it directly, then it usually becomes less clear how the service is funded. If it’s through advertising, that adds a middle layer and I would almost certainly rather pay out of my own pocket rather than through an intermediate advertising “layer” — or at least be given the option to pay directly. Another problem I see with free services is that if the entity providing the free service decides to change their funding model, that may substantially change the nature of the service they provide. Thus whatever time I’ve invested into setting myself up to use their service may be lost. With a paid service, it seems more likely that several competitors will provide similar services, and thus, should the need to switch providers arise, I’ll be able to switch from one to another with less disruption.

    Looking forward to hearing you on the VoIP Users Conference Michael!

  4. Google Apps (including Docs, Mail, etc.) _does_ have a commercial “Pro” version with an SLA, etc. See here. (An interesting aside, I’m not even sure that Google Apps commercial version is even hosted any differently within Google… It may be less a technical difference in their case and more an contractual obligation difference. One that is valuable to many prospective users of their services, especially those which want to use for commercial purposes). I would not be surprised if Google Voice, as it matures, gets incorporated into Google’s office suite platform, similarly.

    The whole “free” (to the user) versus pay debate is a red herring. Free doesn’t mean the provider has no incentive to keep its users happy. After all, free usually means that they depend on users/traffic, an in high volumes typically, to get enough ad clicks to pay for the service. I’d trust Google to make that model work far more than I would many others… though many others have made it work quite successfully too (certainly not all will).

    Similarly, just because someone charges the user directly for VOIP service doesn’t mean they are going to have high availability and good support response times any more than it means they are turning a profit. Heck, the VOIP space is probably even more littered with unprofitable and undifferentiated competitors than most other markets at the moment due to its low barriers to entry and immaturity as an industry. Plenty of players who are profitable have razor thin profit margins, minimal differentiation if any at all, and are at risk of going out of a business at the slightest fluttering of their customer base in the wrong direction. Plus paying someone $5/month for your DID — even if their SLA says you get 100% credit for even the tiniest of outages — still isn’t any more helpful to a business owner who loses out on several hours of inbound calls from prospects and customers. Hence, it’s not all that different whether the service is free or $5. 🙂

    Pick a reliable provider, sure. The only way to know that is based on observing them over time, either through the experience that others have with them or your own experience. It doesn’t matter whether they are free or not. It just matters whether they have a good business model and deliver the functionality and service levels that are congruent with your particular needs.

    -jr

    1. Josh,

      It’s true that “free” is not the core issue. It’s reliability & responsiveness in the face of a problem. I was aware of the paid version of Google Apps, but equally aware that there’s no equivalent yet for Google Voice.

      My wife works for the City Of Houston Parks Dept. They have a number of cases where city parks are shown on Google Maps with the wrong name. Sometimes people paid to have the park named for a family member perhaps now departed. Google is opaque the problem of errors on the maps. They are essentially impossible to contact so the errors persist. In mentioning this to others I’ve found that the situation is not at all uncommon in other parts of the country.

      That’s the Google that I would never trust with my data or my voice lines. The detached, monolithic, secretive Google. The Google that simply can’t be reached by mere mortals. The Google whose business is too vast for them to care about my business.

  5. Great post! Many of the potential issues or concerns that a business might have get lost in all the early hype surrounding this. While GV may evolve into a real solution for business, it’s a long way off. Customer support, privacy & security of data, and reliability are all issues. Not to mention the inevitable ad supported platform.

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