Thursday, June 17, 2010

Google Voice: Lost in Translation

In Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, the residents of San Lorenzo build their entire lives and civilization around misheard words and concepts -- but in doing so, they manage to build a pretty decent lifestyle out of ideas they know to be glorious lies. One example of misheard words is their version of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," which goes something like this: "Tsvent-kiul, tsvent-kiul let-pool store..."

You can experience some of the same exotic style of translation with Google Voice. Its voice-recognition software transcribes telephone voicemail into email and sends you an email or text if you receive a call and the caller leaves a message.

Oh, I waited eagerly for a few months for my Google Voice invite. Google Voice promised to do some of the things that I was used to being able to do with the Accessline software we used to have on our phones at Sun. You could accept calls at your assigned phone number, and then set up rules to route calls to your office, home office, fax machine, or cell numbers -- or, after hours, direct to voicemail. You could set up temporary rules, permanent rules, and different rules for days and times. How great was that?!

Google Voice also offered some mighty nifty features beyond call routing. You could listen to a caller leaving a message before answering. Messages could be transcribed to email, and you could listen to the associated sound files via the Web.

Oh, and the best part: You're more or less allowed to pick your own phone number from the available area codes and number/letter combinations. One lucky friend of mine in NH was able to pick a Bay Area area code and a phone number that was his nickname. I wasn't quite so lucky in my choices -- I chose the Maine area code that all my other phones use, but spent at least an hour trying to find any combination at all that wasn't already in use under one of the two available exchanges. I did finally go with a number, but mostly out of exhaustion. SHIT and CRAP were still available. Oh, and if you choose SHIT and decide that you'd rather have CRAP, you may change once for $10.

With the difficult part done, I set about programming my home and cell phones to ring at prescribed hours, and to set "Do Not Disturb" after 11 PM. That part went easily enough. I then waited for my life to become more orderly -- at least as far as phone calls were concerned.

Things thus far haven't worked out quite as planned, though. People calling my cell phone number -- not my Google number -- got routed into the voicemail system without my being alerted that they were calling. Even if I had thought to screen my calls, I never had the chance.

The only notification I did get came from the email transcript -- which did arrive promptly after I never heard the phone ring. The first message came from the admin at a company for which I hope to do a little freelancing. Having reached my voicemail greeting, she began, "Hi Karen, this is Tiffany." The transcript, by contrast, read "Hi Janet Company." It's a good thing that Google Voice can at least capture phone numbers accurately. If I hadn't recognized the phone number in the message, I might have mistaken it for one of those horrendous spam emails with long lines of nonsense leading up to a link to buy "herbal Viagra."

Sometime during my apologetic call back to Tiffany, Greg beeped in. I ignored his call, so it went to voicemail -- Google Voicemail. This would have been great, if he had been calling my Google number, but he wasn't. He called my AT&T number.

The email transcript arrived. "Hi Lee, Almost all those things. Bang foot I want to repair with you R N. Bye." I will admit that sometimes it's like Final Frickin' Jeopardy trying to untangle all of the vintage TV references, nicknames, and private jokes to get the real meaning of some of his messages, but this one reached a whole new level of obscurity. There wasn't even a link to herbal Viagra. I called Greg at home and read him the message. He replied that he actually had asked me a couple of questions that would help him fill out a form for something, and that his foot was just fine, thankyouverymuch.

Okay, maybe I expect a great deal more than I should get for the shiny and fabulous price of Free -- but it's evident that Google Voice isn't quite ready for prime time yet. The product has a HUGE amount of promise, but don't count on it to handle anything critical, or to not handle things you don't want it to handle.

For starters, Google Voice should only handle calls made to the Google number, and leave all other calls alone. If a call comes directly to my cell number, I would prefer that 1. the phone should ring, and 2. messages should go to the voicemail I specify, or to my cell phone's voicemail.

The call screening feature either doesn't work at all, or it works too well. If no one can reach you because your phone doesn't ring, then you need not worry too much about answering, let alone listening to someone leaving a message.

And ah, the messages. While vastly entertaining to read back to the original callers, they can't be used to deliver anything of actual import. I've removed my cell phone for the time being. If a phone call should come in announcing that I've just won the Nobel Prize, I'd rather not have to try prying some meaning out of "Hi Janet Company. Boo bottle flies."

-- Post From My iSomething


Anonymous said...

Hi Karen -- I've been using Google Voice for awhile now, and while I can bounce calls made to the gV number to my cell phone, I can't figure out how to make it answer calls to my cell phone!

They do offer voicemail service for your home phone; the only thing I can think is that you must have activated that feature and somehow put in your cell phone number. Check your settings.

Hope this helps -- Claire

Alison @ Welcome Sunshine Home said...

Hi! I came across your blog from Mr. Monkey's. I like the tv reference in your profile location! Based on this post I'm assuming you are from Maine (I am too) and I'm super bummed to find out that google voice is crap.

I'm a new follower. Hope you can come visit and decide to follow me too. :)

Hope you have a great weekend!