Obi and the Slow Death of Google Voice

I’ve been a major fan of Google Voice (GV) since the service, purchased from Grand Central, came out. Google Voice gave me one number to use for my phones, whether it was my cell phone or my landline. Call forwarding, call screening, SMS from the desktop, voicemail (with transcription, and different voicemails to user groups), call screening and blocking, and call SPAM filtering. In addition this was all wrapped up in a workable web interface and android app that integrated with my Google contacts. All for free. Even a shim for Android which gave callers on my cellphone my GV number, and click to call from the web.  It was almost all I could ask for. Almost.

 

Rip Google Voice

 

I found that the biggest thing that Google Voice lacked was a good phone interface. The Google Voice client was embedded inside of Gmail, and dialing out required end users to have Gmail open on their computers. This was cumbersome, and not as user friendly as say Skype, which offers a separate standalone application.

 

On December 31, 2012, I found the answer to the one thing that Google Voice lacked, a good way to call out, in a device called the OBI 100, manufactured by a company called OBIHAI. The Obi 100 was a small device, when attached to my broadband connection, connected with my GV account through XMPP.  The result was that I could now dial out for free on a normal POTS telephone, using the GV network, and that I was able to fix the one hole I found with Google Voice. The Obihai user community was very responsive to any requests on how to tweak my service to improve it, and Obihai also cut deals with other VOIP providers to address things that GV didn’t have, like E911.

 obi100

Don’t get me wrong, I like free, and free phone calls over GV was a great benefit to me, but for me,  IT WASN’T ABOUT FREE. It was about maximizing the benefit of having ubiquitous voice communications with one phone number from landline, computer, or cell. In the back of my mind, I waited for the day when Google was going to charge for domestic calls, and I would have been glad to pony up, provided that the charge was reasonable.

 

A number of cottage industries sprouted up using the same technology that Obihai used. On Android, apps like Talkatone and others enabled users to make free calls over Wifi using GV on a tablet or cellphone, free of charge. These apps mostly rode under the radar of giant Google,  relying on the “Do no harm” motto to keep them safe. However, they were always vulnerable to being squashed by Google.

 

One of the things that is frustrating about Google is the way that they terminate services which aren’t largely profitable or no longer strategic for them. I was a user of Google Desktop Search, Goog411, and Google Reader, all of which were discontinued. I was uncertain about the future of Google Voice, because Google had not aggressively pursued a revenue generation model, and had not put  money or effort into further developing the product. Stupid things, like problems with  the buttons in the Google Voice Android app, were never addressed.

 

But it was the development of Google Hangouts, and the strategic direction of Google towards Hangouts, which is proving to be the slow cancer that is sucking the life out of Google Voice. To be honest, I don’t don’t understand what Hangouts wants to be when it grows up; a Skype, Webex, ooVoo hybrid that is used to push more people into using Google +, perhaps? I hope the minds at Google have better foresight than I do, because if that is their direction, I just don’t see it as being successful.  I don’t think that Google needed to promote and develop Hangouts at the expense of Google Voice. If this was thought out correctly, they could of had a solution that would have been really useful for business telecom. It’s amazing for me to say this, but I actually believe that Microsoft, with Skype and Lynx, is addressing unified communications in a way that is going to be more palatable for the business community.

 

On October 31, 2013, Google announced that it terminate the use of the XMPP protocol. effective May 15, 2014. This effectively eliminates the ability of devices like the Obi to use GV to make outbound calls, and it is a big step back for Google Voice. Furthermore, it brings uncertainty to the future of Google Voice. Will GV still offer a shim for android phones? Will I still be able to only show one number from any phone that I dial? Will I be able to get around the limitations of the Google client?

 

It’s sad, because there were some ways that Google could have furthered the growth of Google Voice, leveraging Hangouts to make it more successful, instead of continuing the GV death spiral. How? I believe that GV could have become the beginning of monetization for Google Hangouts. Monetization could have occurred in a number of fronts;

 

  • Charge for the service – Many of use would have gladly payed to have outbound VOIP access through Google Voice. I’m going to have to pay for another service now, so why not pay for the service I want?
  • Advertising- I would not have objected to having ads on the Google Voice webpage, even ads that looked at my dialing behavior, and made suggestions based upon that. For example, if I call my mechanic, and get an ad for an oil change at a discount, it would have benefited me, Google, and the advertiser, and I would have looked at this advertising as being the cost I paid for getting this service.
  • Goog411 would have been a perfect add-on to Google Voice. I remember the days when I could get my dialing done in my car safely by good old Goog411.
  • Offer an Obi-like device. Google could have bought Obi, or come up with their own Obi-like device. Kind of like a VOIP Chromecast.

Skype, ooVoo, and Webex all already have revenue generation models in place, and an advertising model is consistent with the way that Google’s other enterprises make money.

 

This is more of a temporary headache for me right now. I’m sure that I will eventually find a way to deal with the GV termination of XMPP, be it with another VOIP provider, or giving up on a landline completely (highly likely, since I’ll be getting Wifi VOIP through Republic Wireless.  It’s sad to see the slow death of another great service from Google, but it’s more their problem than it is mine.

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