Update 8/26: You can now make calls from your Gmail interface even without a Google Voice account, but the two services play well together (North America only for free calls; international calls originating from the US are cheaper than the very cheap service I currently use). Here are some useful and less-useful tips and tricks from Lifehacker.
If you live in the US, Google Voice is now open to everyone. I wrote about it before, but now you don’t need an invitation to use it. By the way, if you’re US-based but working overseas, it might still be worth getting if you have a friend in the US who could activate it for you–it’ll give you a US number you can use for web-based texting (you can get the texts in e-mail) and voice mail, so friends and family can call you and leave messages on their own schedule. You’d get an e-mail with a link to the recording and a transcription (when it works). It might be great in an emergency, for people with totally incompatible schedules, and for relatives who don’t do e-mail. As I mentioned before, it’s really an amazing thing for private tutors and “freeway flyers” with 3 different work numbers, too.
Anyway, Lifehacker has done a good job writing about it in the past as well as now that it’s open:
Now, I haven’t really noticed the lag that they mention, but I have had 1 call out of the calls that a client has made to me not go through, and 1 other call was garbled so badly that I couldn’t hear him. That was during the beta test, though, so I’m hoping that things are better now. It really has made life easier, and my husband uses it all the time so that his students can call him (he’s a part-time community college teacher) and text him (they mostly prefer texting to e-mail). It lets him communicate with them on both their terms and his terms (he hates texting, but typing on a keyboard is fine). He turns the number’s setting to ring when he’s on campus, but it’s generally on Do Not Disturb (straight to voice mail) when he’s at home, unless something special is going on.
Anyway, if you’re already interested and you want to give it a try, go to http://www.google.com/voice/
On the eighth day, we’re taking a moment to focus on a service that’s mostly of use only to folks working in the US, although there are some ways in which it could be useful to people with a lot of American friends and family. If that isn’t you at all, well, happy new year and see you tomorrow–I’ll do better then!
At any rate, a lot of people have heard of Google Voice, but quite a few people are still asking “What is it good for?” Well, a lot of things…
Google will provide you with a phone number (I picked one with a local area code, which may not be possible for everyone, and messed around with the available numbers till I found a combination that was easy to remember). It’s a kind of virtual phone line that forwards instantly to whatever real phone numbers you specify, such as your home, work, and cell numbers. You can control the forwarding by who’s calling and when: individual calling number, groups of calling numbers, time of day, etc.
If you’re a “freeway flyer” whose students need to get in touch with you, but you don’t necessarily want to give out your home or personal cell phone, this is a fantastic service. Give the Google Voice number to your students, and you can control when and where they can contact you. For example, you could set it up so they can reach you at your XYZ College office during your office hours there, your ABC College office during your office hours there, and then have it on “mute” (voice mail) the rest of the time–except during a special project when you unmute it at home until 9 PM, when you have it automatically mute itself. If they can’t get through, they’ll leave a voice mail, which will arrive in your e-mail as a sound file. (Google will also attempt to transcribe it, which works OK some of the time, but isn’t very good with any kind of regional or international accent or cell-phone sound quality problems.)
You can also receive text messages and reply to them for free (SMS), either having them sent to your phone or sent to your e-mail address (or leaving them to not be shown unless you log into Google Voice). If you reply by e-mail from your computer, it’ll be sent as a text message at no charge to you. My husband has some students who don’t really have access to e-mail at home, and being able to communicate them by text messages without actually texting is really useful, since he wants to be able to help them out but he doesn’t want to have to try to type on his phone. (International SMS is not currently supported.)
There are a lot of other features like being able to customize the greeting by caller (this could be useful for other TESOL professionals who are working for themselves, or if you want to customize messages by class, etc.), being able to record calls by pressing a button, very cheap international calls, and so on. The ability to have phone calls follow you could also be useful if you’re looking for a full-time job, etc. It’s really just one of those services where the more you use it, the more useful it becomes. Lifehacker did a pretty good job with their article “Google Voice is Cool, But Do You Need It?” I think it’s a good roundup of the pros and cons, although I haven’t noticed any delay to speak of and I benefit from it despite rarely using it with my cell phone.
However, there are a couple of big catches:
1) It’s US-only. US phone numbers only, US texting only, and access to a US phone number is required for setup. After you get the invitation (see below), there needs to be someone who can answer an automated phone call at a US number you enter during the setup process and enter a two-digit code from the e-mail. In theory, if you wanted to use the voice mail and texting services to get messages from US-based friends and family while you were outside of the US, you could, but you’d need to coordinate that initial setup. It could be handy to set up if you’re returning from working overseas and don’t have a living or working situation pinned down yet, though!
2) Invitations are still even harder to get for Google Voice than for Google Wave. You can sign up to go on the waiting list here, but it may be a long time before you get the invitation. However, my husband has kindly agreed to donate two Google Voice invitations! It’s the same system as the Google Wave invitations–if you are an English/ESL/EFL or other second/foreign language educator or educator-in-training who would like a Google Voice invitation, please go to the Contact Me form and tell me what kind of school/other teaching situation you work in and what level you teach at (or where you’re studying and for what degree). Make sure to give me your Gmail address or another e-mail address to which you’d like the invitation sent. (Do not comment here to get the invitation–you don’t want your e-mail address posted for the whole internet to see!) You must be a language educator to get an invitation.
I do apologize for the US-centric nature of this post, and I’ll try not to do it too often! That said, it’s been very useful for my business and for my husband’s teaching.