Old Phone Number, New Tricks Google Voice takes one more step toward eradicating the traditional phone system

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There are few technologies that I’ve promoted as relentlessly as Google Voice. In several columns and in a video, I’ve lauded the service for transforming how I use my phone. Instead of having one number for your home phone, another for your office, and another for your mobile, Voice gives you a single phone number for everything. When someone calls me, the service rings all my phones (or any subset of phones, depending on a schedule I’ve set). Plus, you can even answer your phone in Gmail (which is really handy when you’re in a place with bad cell coverage but great Internet coverage).

But that’s not all! Voice transcribes my phone messages and e-mails me the text, freeing me from the scourge of voice mail. Even though these transcriptions are often hilariously inaccurate, it lets me get the gist of my calls in an instant. It also lets me respond to text messages from my computer, which is much easier than fumbling on a phone. And, finally, because the service offers free calls across the country and cheap calls overseas, it has breathed new life into my home phone, which mobile phones had long ago promised to kill off. Best of all, Google Voice is free.

Yet despite my fevered proselytizing, I’d be surprised if I’ve convinced all that many people to use Voice. For many years, Google Voice was open only by invitation. The service also took some time to add key features – like text messaging – and it’s gone through a few buggy periods. (The site was unbelievably slow just after the Google acquisition.) But the biggest shortcoming, by far, has been Voice’s lack of number portability. When you signed up, you had to pick a new Voice-enabled phone number. Since most of the service’s features only work when people call your Voice number directly, that meant you had to give all your friends and work contacts new digits. For most people, this was a nonstarter.

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