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How I became a mobile phone “free agent” by switching to Google Voice

UPDATE, February 2016: The following post was originally from September 2012, shortly after I ported my Verizon number to Google Voice. I’ve since updated it a bit (you’ll see a few “updates” throughout, mainly because I’m too lazy to write a totally new post), but some portions may still be reflective of Google Voice functionality, circa 2012 (again…I’m lazy). I’m still an active/avid user of Google Voice, although Google Hangouts essentially serves as my “daily driver” now (using my Google Voice number).

It’s safe to say my cell provider won’t be sending me a Christmas card again this year. In late 2012, I broke up with Verizon and went to a pay-as-you-go cell plan (also with Verizon, but we were free to date other people…). At the same time, I ported my cell number to Google Voice, and thus gained “free agent” status in the world of cellular telephony.

About five years ago, I took a job with the world’s most incredible healthcare I.T. company (my niche) which allows me to work from home and seldom requires travel. But, spending more time at my home office and almost no time on the road left me with few reasons to continue spending large sums of money on a massive cell plan.

Web conferencing services like GoToMeeting and Webex–which provide the ability to use your computer’s mic and speakers to join a meeting rather than a telephone–soon eliminated most of my needs for any kind of telephone, especially since my daily routine consisted of standing (that’s right, I stand all day) in front of my computer. And, a $15 second landline for my office soon proved helpful to prevent tying up our home phone on hour-long conference calls (Update: Ooma has since taken care of that issue. Get it. You’ll thank me).

But, a cell phone–or, to be more specific, a mobile number–was still indispensable in my work and home life.

Few of us with a spouse and kids would think of leaving our home without a cell phone. We want to be accessible (at least for our family) and have some measure of safety in case of an emergency. We also don’t want to be pinned down to one place waiting for a call if we can avoid it.

My situation prior to porting my cell number to Google Voice was a bit different than most. As my travel diminished substantially, I found myself carrying a Blackberry (I’d had one for years) and a 3G-enabled iPad with a data plan. The real estate of the iPad suited my needs for any web-related purposes much better than the Blackberry. And, I was the only one in North America who was still balking at an iPhone purchase (I never did buy one for myself, btw…but I did give one to my wife). So, I downgraded to a used flip phone and awaited the end of my contract period.

After the switch, I received some pretty funny looks from friends and colleagues when I whipped my dumbphone out of my pocket. Most would say something like, “You work in technology, but use that for a phone?! How do you get to Facebook?!” (Answer: I don’t anymore.) We mock what we don’t understand….

Despite the ridicule, I was certain that I had made the right decision. But, the beauty of this unfolding system didn’t take full shape and form until I finally figured out Google Voice.

Google introduced the Google Voice web application in early 2009. The short story is that a user can place free PC/mobile app-to-phone calls anywhere in the world or PC-to-PC voice/video calls to other Google Voice subscribers (Update: Hangouts has expanded on this quite a bit, as many of you likely know). Placing calls over the web isn’t exactly original (although “free” is definitely a plus). But, the services associated with Google Voice are the real power.

All of the “standard” goodies, like voice mail, conference calling, and call forwarding are there. And, so are the over-the-top Google-flavored features, like fully-integrated Contacts, free text messaging, voice mail transcription (someone should write a book with all of the weird transcriptions Google Voice spits out…not very accurate, but entertaining to read), missed call notification, and a very sophisticated call screening system.

The feature that really got my attention, though, was the very clever way Google Voice allows users to forward calls from specific people or groups to specific phones (even at specific times) or directly to voice mail. This was the “aha” moment for me.

My friend John was the first person I saw using these powerful features. He practices medicine in a small town where he is the only specialist of his kind. His contract with the hospital places him on-call every other weekend, with back-up provided by other physicians when he is off. However, I can tell you from experience, if you are the go-to guy at the hospital for a particular service, the nursing staff won’t hesitate to call you 24/7, if they have your number (don’t go there…you would too if you were them).

John’s solution was to give them his Google Voice number which was then automatically forwarded to his cell phone (a different number) and home number, simultaneously. When he was off, he simply logged into the Google Voice Inbox, changed one simple setting, and any calls to the Google Voice number from the hospital would go directly to voice mail as well as send him an email with the transcription. Voila! Automated answering service without the cost or risk of incorrectly filtered important calls.

So, when my cell contract expired and my number was placed on monthly billing with Verizon, I ported my number to Google Voice, purchased a pay-as-you-go phone, and cancelled my existing plan. Despite a few hiccups, mainly related to group settings for Contacts, it was a tremendous success for me. It is one of the few tech-related things that provided an exponential return on my investment of time and energy (versus, say, dealing with HP printer flog).

Features & Benefits

The best things about Google Voice for me are:

Freedom from interruptions–It provides me greater focus because I’ve configured it to prevent unnecessary disturbances from unknown–or known–numbers.

Easy texting–Without the qwerty keyboard of a smart phone, texting is a pain. I initially used Google Voice’s Chrome extension, which was seamless in my workflow. Since the advent of Google Hangouts, nearly all of my texting is done on my laptop via the Hangouts app. Recipients don’t know the difference (and wonder how I’m able to text so quickly). I try not to text on my mobile device, but I still do sometimes.

Tightly integrated Contacts and Calling–Making a phone call involves just a few clicks and keystrokes, including a quick Google-ish smart search of my Contacts for the right person and number.

Multiple options for placing calls–When placing a call you can choose which phone (your PC via Google Talk, cell phone, or any landline you’ve registered with Google Voice) you want to use (NOTE: this feature was sunset, I think, when Hangouts came on the scene. I really miss it. But, I’m still able to make calls from my computer). With my Logitech USB microphone and external speakers, I don’t have to hold a receiver or handset to my head so that I can remain hands-free. The call quality is also far superior to any speakerphone. This has become my preferred method for phone calls.

The Quirks

This is evolving technology, so one must expect a fair amount of flog. My gremlins have included:

Updating Contacts in Google Voice is finicky–One cool part of Google Voice is the synchronization between my Google Contacts (in itself, a fantastic product, as an integrated part of Gmail). But, sometimes editing contact info and call settings (you can do this at an individual or group level) fails and you fall in to a frustrating error loop.

Mystery calls on different linked phones–Once you’ve gone to the trouble to specify that Joe Pest should never get through to your cell or home phone, and instead be dumped directly into voice mail, it is bothersome to have every phone you own start ringing when he calls. Probably user error, but I’ve received inconsistent results trying to replicate.

Calling my own home phone–This is where things really start to get mind-bending. My own contact info was stored in Google Contacts as a vCard (virtual Card) and included my home phone number. My wife’s contact info also included the same home number (and hopefully will for about 50 more years…). So, if I was away from home trying to call her using Google Voice (from my laptop, for instance), I would be calling myself or be dumped into voice mail. Strange, but easily solved by removing my home phone number from my contact info and hoping that my memory would be sufficient….

The bottom Line

Although most of this was focused on enhancing workflow and leveraging technology, cost savings were another driver for my transition to Google Voice. After a one-time $20 porting fee to Google Voice, almost every call I’ve made using it has been free, with the exception being cell phone charges on my pay-as-you-go when I answer a call. This has actually become a very healthy cost-conscious deterrent to the kind of arbitrary calls some of us make these days.

Combined with the Verizon pay-as-you-go, my total cost of monthly phone service, not counting our personal home phone, was initially about $30. And, although I chose to pay the $15 for monthly 3G service from AT&T on my iPad, I soon found I could go without it when not traveling for business or pleasure. That was about a $100 savings compared to my previous cell phone plus data plan footprint.

Time will tell if Google Voice continues to fit my needs. If I’m Google (wouldn’t that be cool?), I would be introducing some sort of pricing model to my user base soon. The service has been provided gratis for over three years now, and getting people to pay for something they’ve had for free is usually a struggle. But, based on my overwhelmingly positive experience, I would absolutely be willing to pay a reasonable monthly fee for reliable, continued service.

If you’re interested in making the switch to Google Voice and would like a more technically-focused post complete with screenshots, leave me a comment. Or, if you are a Google Voice superuser, give the rest of us some tips/tricks and share your own experiences.


Epilogue:

After the original post above in late 2012 (which contains a few updates, as noted), I continued to carry the flip phone plus/minus the iPad for another two years, up until the time that my first generation iPad was only good for watching episodes of “Jessie” on Netflix at the breakfast table (for my 8 y.o. daughter…I’m more of a LabRats fan).

In late 2014, I purchased an unlocked Sony Xperia Z Ultra phablet (look it up) from the Google Play store and have used pay-as-you-go service from a few different mobile carriers in the interim. I’ve since whittled my monthly costs down to <$20/month using an AT&T GoPhone plan, which allows me to pay $1 (that’s ONE dollar) for 100MB of data, on demand (which lasts until midnight the next day); using Google Hangouts dialer on the Sony Xperia, I’m able to place almost every call using my data plan.

My main purpose for getting the Xperia Z was for watching movies, reading books/blogs/news, and using a few of my favorite productivity apps (I’m not much of a gamer, but the Xperia can deliver). I’ve since allowed Gmail, IM/texting, and phone calls to gain more of a foothold. So, I’ve essentially become a habitual smartphone user…again….

So, after ruminating about this, as I do all of my technology decisions, I was determined to return to a flip phone UNTIL…I came across an article today in the Financial Times (via Drudge…I can’t stop loving you, Matt…) about the Light Phone. Nothing more to say about that today except for this: Walk towards the Light.

Joe and Kaiwei are bringing something elegant and beautiful to our world. Very exciting.

I’m pre-ordering today. Suggest you hop on it, too. Dedicated post to follow.

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