Why Google Voice may be doomed to be a second-class messaging system

Google Voice is great at voicemail and number blocking and other things. But it's not so great at working with other apps.

In early July 2012, Google launched a big, unifying upgrade to Google Voice Actions and Voice Search, rolling it all into Google Now. You could ask your phone about the weather, glance at what was coming up and going on around you, and fire off text messages to friends with your voice.

Unless you were a Google Voice user. As reported in an Android issue on July 3, 2012, days before Google Now was actually available to non-developer-types, the new Google speech/search/action tool could take in your command ("Text Amy Where did you want to meet up?"), and even ask you if you wanted to use the standard Messaging or Google Voice to send the text. Choose Google Voice, however, and it didn't work. It didn't tell you that it didn't work, it just did not go through.

Bugs happen, even when the new Google search tool is trying to contact Google's own messaging service, on a Google-produced Galaxy Nexus phone. It took four months until the problem was half-fixed: you can send a text through Google Now if the voice-to-text works perfectly and you tap "Send message," but clicking the message to edit the text brings you into Google Voice with a blank message. It still does, as of yesterday, on my own Galaxy Nexus.

I've been using Google Voice roughly since it was available to the public in early 2009, less than two years after Google acquired the core Grandcentral service. After declaring Google Voice as my new singular number and working through the transition, I grew to appreciate many of its features, especially the voicemail transcriptions, the ability to send and receive unlimited text messages by phone or website, and recording incoming calls by tapping "4." The background knowledge that I can never lose my number to carrier mix-ups or lost phones is quite nice, too.

I've had my moments of frustration with Voice (and sometimes wondered about its future). Most of them relate to how Voice handles text messages with images attached, or MMS. Unless you're a Sprint customer who integrates their number with Voice, you just don't get MMS. You don't get accompanying text, you don't get a link to download an attachment, nor do you get a notice that someone tried to send you an attachment. I don't receive any more adorable dog photos than the average young-ish person, but I'd like to know if I need to tell a friend to email me instead.

Lately, though, I've come to sense that Voice will always be a kind of second-class messaging system. Besides the outgoing Google Now text issue noted above, most apps that do neat things with incoming texts, like read them out loud when you're driving, can't work with Voice. Tasker, a crazy, nerdy automation tool that can do things like turn your volume up when you get a text from your wife, can't work with Voice. The developer, who has literally dug into every possible input and output process on Android, can't find any way to get into Google Voice's data, with or without authorization and sign-in.

Online services that text you to verify or remind you are about 50/50. My account and bill alerts at personal finance site Mint.com come through on Google Voice, but Chase and Discover cards can't use my number to verify my identity. Online app-connector IFTTT seems to work through my Voice number, but some merchant services, like "Text me when my table's ready," do not. As with MMS messages, too, you have no idea they didn't work, they just don't show up.

There is a wonky work-around, perhaps, at least for Android users: enable an option to have Google Voice forward your messages to your standard text messaging number. That requires paying for text messages, which is somewhat anathema to a key feature of Voice. It also requires turning off notifications in Messaging so you don't get two pings for every text, and then dealing with a huge archive of Messaging messages that are never marked as read.

I tweeted out my frustration with Voice as a smartphone citizen, and received quite a response from sympathetic fellow users, but also "give it just a bit more time" from many who have heard from Google employees. And, not least of all, the founder of GrandCentral himself, Craig Walker, who wrote back:

.@kevinpurdy very sad to see this tweet, @googlevoice is still only number I use. Maybe there's big news coming and all are silently on it?

That big news is almost certainly about integration with Hangouts. Beyond tweets about things said at Google I/O this year, there is this Google+ post from Google employee Nikhyl Singhal, who writes that "Hangouts is designed to be the future of Google Voice." Hangouts have already incorporated Voice calls, at least for some users, and it makes sense to integrate Voice with what Google wants to be an all-in-one messaging platform. Maybe it even allows for MMS messages to come through.

But, again, what I'm interested in is some kind of assurance that Google Voice can work just like any other text messaging system. Nifty apps that can speak, respond, and analyze your messages should work with Voice, if I let them. Banks and restaurants and whoever else wants to robo-text me, if I let them, should reach me. I'm sure it's no small task, but as we gradually pull back the insane costs of text messages, unlimited mostly-works texting isn't such a killer app anymore.

Read more of Kevin Purdy's Mobilize! blog and follow Kevin on Twitter (@kevinpurdy) and Google+. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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