What does Google want out of your Voice?

Update: Response from Google spokesperson now included.

Google Voice is an odd duck in Google's app collection. What does it really do for the search giant?

With almost every Google product, you can point somewhere in your browser window or Android screen and say, “That’s why they provide the server space.”

Gmail? There are a few ads, and learning to fight spam probably helps Google’s search results. Docs? No ads yet, but it convinces workers and companies to look to the cloud, Google’s cloud, for their productivity, and more web time equals more ad exposure. Android is the same way, getting more people into smartphones then would have been the norm by now. And Google+ is, by all accounts, Google’s attempt to get the kind of personalized data on people that it needs for contextual results.

But Google Voice is, if not the outlier, at least the strangest offering, and has possibly the lowest ratio of revenue to cost. I don’t have any numbers on that, as Google doesn’t typically break out its individual products in its earnings reports. But Voice doesn’t display ads on the web. Its mobile version is more of a utility, a smartphone voicemail upgrade, than anything else. In fact, on the most up-to-date Android phones, Google Voice literally replaces the phone’s voicemail and call log.

Starting from this point, you can just assume that, if you want it to, Google will let you send text messages for free, store your voicemail on its servers, transcribe them as best it can with its speech-to-text algorithms, and provide the bandwidth to transform any calls to your “one number” into a Voice-over-IP call to any phone you’ve registered. What’s more, if you don’t mind plugging a headset into your laptop, you can make free voice calls to anywhere in the U.S. or Canada with Google Voice and Gmail. Google doesn’t mind providing all the storage and throughput for all the calls you will make in your life.

Why is that so attractive? There’s a cynical guess, a reasonable line you can draw through their previous voice-based initiatives, and then there’s just a question mark the size of a server farm. The cynical guess is that, now that Google has unified their products under one privacy policy and one set of terms of use, Google Voice will be just another feeder for their vast database on you. Just like Gmail, data and context you enter into Google Voice could be used to improve Google’s service to you through its other products. There were all kinds of freak-outs about Google’s servers reading your email when Gmail first started showing ads, and a glimpse at your Gmail sidebar can still be an intimidating show of computational creepiness. But we’ve come to accept that Google will put in filters to keep our most private phone moments from generating advertisements and clues about what YouTube videos we might enjoy.

The reasonable line is that Google wants to get much, much better at speech-to-text, and at understanding what people really want when they say things out loud. By having all your friends leave their voicemails on your Google Voice account, then clicking to mark them as useful or not, and then further sending the message to Google if was a really bad miss, Google will get better at understanding all the ways that humans say things. They already did it with GOOG-411, the free phone directory service that mined voices across the country to launch Google Voice’s current transcription offering.

The stakes are pretty high already, as Google already sees Apple’s Siri assistant as a threat to its core business. Siri obfuscates the source of its answers, which can often be Google, and doesn’t read advertising out loud to you. More than anything, though, Siri is successfully marketed as a place you turn to for answers, while Google has always sought to be the leader in organizing the world’s information and making it accessible. Google is reportedly looking to launch its own assistant in late 2012, and one has to assume that Voice functions will play an integral role in that assistance.

But maybe Voice is just something of a question mark, albeit of a most harmless kind. Voice was the product of an acquisition of a phone-managing service, GrandCentral, that had its heyday in a time when having an office phone, a home phone, and a cellphone was more likely than today’s norm of having just a cellphone. Another of Voice’s killer features, international web-based calling that’s usually cheaper than Skype, hasn’t really taken off, at least to the extent that I’ve met anybody who uses it, or read about its popularity in any publication.

All this is not to say I don’t like or appreciate Voice--I use it every single day, and the ability to send and receive text messages from my desktop browser is worth a whole lot to me. But because my phone number is a Voice number, and because a whole lot of phone history is now stored with Voice, I want to see it succeed and even expand. So here’s hoping the purpose for Voice becomes more clear than “that nice thing Google offers.”

Update: A Google spokesperson provided these comments, in response to questions about these same topics: plans for the future and monetization:

Google Voice is a free service that helps you manage your phones and voicemail by unifying all of your phones with a single number. We only generate revenue on international calling. We also charge a one-time fee of $10 to port your number. We have no plans to change this strategy going forward in terms of monetization.
The ability to make and receive calls in Gmail is powered by Google Voice but I don't know that I would go so far to say that it is the "glue" that links our services together. Google Voice gives you more control over all of your voice-based communications and makes it easy for you to access this information from anywhere—by phone, email, or the Web.

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