Google answers the call again

“We’re sorry, the party you are calling cannot be reached. At the tone, please leave a message. After you are done, stop speaking, then hang up, or press: Pound. To leave a callback number: Press. Five. To page this person: Press. Seven. At the tone, Eastern Standard Time Will Be: Eight. Forty. Five. And. Nine. Seconds. Now please: Listen. To. The. Party’s. Voicemail. Message. Thank you. (Beep.)” (OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but just barely.)

Sound familiar? If so, you’re probably like most cellphone-wielding Americans. Make you want to tear your hair out? You’re not alone. But have no fear: Google’s just entered the calling and voicemail market, with a beta caveat and pricetag of “free,” as usual, and they’re set to do to it the same thing Gmail did to web-based email providers and that Google itself did to search engines. First we had Google SMS. Then we had GOOG-411. Now we have Google Voice. The best way to experience Google Voice is to try it out yourself (invitation from Google required), but while you’re waiting for your invitation to join, we’ll break down just a few of the reasons that make those of us in the IT Department at OSCPA love it.

Where do you want to call from?

The fun starts at the registration page. Chances are, when you got your cell phone from $carrier (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, etc. — pick your favorite), they gave you a random phone number, or at the very least, didn’t give you much say in what it was. Not so with Google Voice. While at the moment Google doesn’t allow you to transfer your current phone number to the service, they make up for this by letting you search for a number you want. That’s right: if you want a phone number in New York that contains the word “CODE,” you can do that (if one is available). If you want a number anywhere that has a “1776,” you can do that, too. Or if you’d just prefer to appear to be calling from Hawaii, Google’s got you covered (that would be area code 808, if you’re wondering).

Back to basics

Google, of course, offers all the “basic” features you would expect, all done with their traditional style and simplicity. When people call your Google Voice number, it will forward the call to any number of your choosing. In fact, it will forward it to as many different numbers of your choosing as you like, all at the same time, and it can be programmed to ring different phones depending on who’s calling. You can also choose to block certain people altogether, send some callers straight to voicemail, or even mark particularly annoying callers as spam (rumor has it that they receive a fictitious “number disconnected” message — at last, some competition for the TeleZapper). You can also require callers to say their name first (Google will ask you when you answer whether or not you want to take their call), particularly useful for numbers you don’t recognize. And you can set up several different voicemail greetings to play for different people.

For all of these features, you can set your preferences based on individual people or groups of people (e.g., you could decide that callers in the “Family” group ring all your phones, hear “Hi, please leave a message!” as their greeting, and don’t have to say their name first, while those in “Work” ring just your work number, hear “Hello, I’m not here right now, so please leave your name and the best time at which to call you back” as their greeting, and do have to say their name, and those in “Annoying” are just sent straight to voicemail, being told, of course, “I’m sorry, but I will be unavailable for the foreseeable future”).

Also — and this really does merit its own paragraph — Google Voice isn’t annoying. It doesn’t plague you with prerecorded messages telling you that you’re at a voicemail system and so you should leave your name and number after the beep (really, in 2009, does anyone not already know this?) or asking you whether or not you’d like to page the person you called. If you call in to check your voicemail, it doesn’t beat around the bush, telling you that the menus may have changed since yesterday and that you have: Twelve. New. Messages. And, everywhere, the menus are short, simple, and fast. No more waiting for thirty seconds just to hear how to erase a message. This is Google, after all.

Free calls, cheap calls, and call recording

Another great feature, although perhaps not as crucial since most people using Google Voice will probably use it with a mobile phone and not just a land line, is that you can make calls to any (continental) US number for free (caveat being that it still uses your cell phone minutes if you’re not on a land line). And if you’d rather talk to someone in Brazil, Russia, or Germany, you can call them too, and cheaply at that (at the time of writing, $0.04, $0.05, and $0.02 per minute, respectively). Google even gives you $0.10 right off the bat, just for signing up.

We should also mention that you can record calls to listen to later, although at the moment this is restricted only to incoming calls and doesn’t include calls from your Google Voice number as well. So, next time you’re on an important conference call in the middle of driving to the airport, you can focus on traffic instead of finding a pen to write down your hotel’s address.

SMS? Yes

Not limited only to voice, people can send SMS messages to your Google voice number as well, and these will be forward to however many mobile phones you’ve added. You can also send and receive SMS messages via the web interface, and you can save old messages for reference instead of having periodically to erase them as you would on a phone.

Voicemail, part deux

You have no idea how clunky your current voicemail system is until you’ve seen how Google Voice does it. With voicemail from Google, you can listen to your voicemails online, save them to your computer, or embed them on web pages (sounds like a problem waiting to happen), it’s true. Yes, you can even listen to people as they leave you a message to decide whether or not you want to take their call. But Google’s taken it to the next level, because Google Voice can also automatically transcribe your voicemails to text, send them to you via SMS and email, and let you store, search, and annotate them online in a Gmail-like interface. While not perfect (the transcription is sometimes a little off, but still amazing for a computerized service), this feature is probably the best part of Google Voice, and you really have to see it to appreciate it.

Do you like your carrier’s features? Then stick with them. In the meantime, we’ll be using Google Voice.

Jott This Down

It never fails, my best thoughts come to me while driving. Try as I might, I never seem to remember them all. What I need is a way to “Jott” these thoughts down. I’d describe what I’ve found at http://www.jott.com as a bridge between my cell phone and the Internet.

In its simplest form Jott allows me to call a toll-free number and leave myself a message. Jott then transcribes the message and allows me to choose what I’d like to do with it. You can create Jott lists and assign items to them. You can sent jotts to contacts via SMS or e-mail. You can even Jott to other Web sites like RememberTheMIlk and Twitter.

I was fortunate and joined before Jott implemented a new mixed mode business model. I’m currently using up the remaining beta awards, and will soon have to pick one of the three service types. Jott Basic is a free ad-supported version with minimal features. Jott is $3.95/month and adds an Outlook Client. Jott Pro is 12.95/month and doubles your recording time and adds a BlackBerry application.

Gone are the days of texting myself notes from the car. Jott has made life easier for me and much safer for those driving around me. Give it a try: http://www.jott.com.

What’s so hard about remembering the milk?

I often get teased because I make lists: “But you’re so young; you shouldn’t be so forgetful all the time.” I hear that line (or several variations of it) often, but the truth is, I make lists not only to remember things, but to organize.

With the rigors of everyday life bearing down on working professionals, why should we be expected to remember everything? Well, we’re not.

Remember the Milk (RTM) is a free online task management site that simply manages your tasks in the form of lists so you will “never forget the milk (or anything else) again.”

Here’s just a sample of what you can do with Remember the Milk.

Manage tasks effortlessly
Ever have an idea pop into your head or suddenly remember something as you’re driving, only to have it dissipate from your thoughts completely upon arrival? It’s OK – it happens to the best of us (at least that’s what I’m telling myself). With RTM, you wouldn’t have that problem when you can just fire off an e-mail or TXT message from your phone and add it to your list.

Receive TXT, e-mail and IM reminders
Set-up reminders for your tasks to be sent to you via the interface of your choice. Choose from e-mail, TXT or IM (AIM, Gadu-Gadu, Google Talk, ICQ, Jabber, MSN, Skype and Yahoo!).  Can’t get any more convenient than that.

Organize with lists and tags
I love tag clouds. I think they’re fun and I can easily spot the subjects of any blog that I am reading, or in this case, the contents of my lists and tasks. With unlimited list-making at your disposal, I have found this feature to be extremely helpful.

The more a tag appears throughout your lists, and the longer your lists are, the tags are displayed in a larger font in your tag cloud (or Task Cloud as RTM calls it). It is also easy to distinguish between lists and tags in the cloud, as your lists will be displayed in gray and your tags will be shown in blue.

Another cool aspect of the tag cloud: the higher priority a task is, or the closer the due date is, the word will also appear in a larger font, making sure that you can’t miss it.

Track your tasks using Google Maps
Now that you’re not going to forget the milk on the way home, map out just where you’re going to stop. Use this feature to pinpoint where you will be completing your tasks so you never have to go out of your way!

Share, send or publish tasks and lists
Need a friendly non-nagging way to remind someone to do something (your significant other perhaps)? Add them to your RTM contacts list and send them a task reminder.

As I mentioned above, this is only a small flavor of features that Remember the Milk offers. Now, if you’ll excuse me, writing this blog completed another task that I must go “cross off my list” (after all, I didn’t want to forget to write it).

Found on Google: More than just a simple search

Variables of every type swirl around computer user’s habits and hardware, still one common tool seems to always be on everyone’s list: Google. This simple search engine grows in every direction, yet does no wrong or at least no intentional evil. Google has added several great features and services, but their claim to fame is still their search ability.

Let’s say that you’re feeling adventurous enough to stray from the comfortable simple search. Take advantage of these lesser known features of the Google search engine.

SPELLING: Google’s suggested word feature offers a quick and easy on-off spell checker. By mistakenly typing “catastophic” into the Google search returns: “Did you mean: catastrophic.” Simply clicking on the new spelling suggestion brings up your intended search results.

DEFINITIONS: Need to find the technical meaning for XBRL? Entering “define: xbrl” in the search returns a list of definitions found on the Web. Need the definition in another language (Hey, you never know!)? Simply click on one of the nine languages available to view your search results in that language.

CALCULATIONS: Use the Google search box for calculations and conversions. Soople.com provides an interface to send raw numbers to Google for calculation. Check out the Google results below after these formulas were entered into Soople:

TIME AND WEATHER: Use the time or weather operators to get information about a given location. Simply enter “time” or “weather” and the name of the city and voila – instant time or weather information (not to mention thousands upon thousands of search results relating to said city’s weather or time).

AIRLINE TRAVEL INFORMATION: Typing the airline name and flight number of any arriving or departing flight will link you to flightstats.com for up-to-date flight information. Entering the airport name or code followed by the operator “airport” will display airport conditions.

PACKAGE TRACKING: Enter any UPS, USPS or FedEx package tracking number and a direct link to your tracking interface will be returned.

Nice features for a simple search box, but outstanding from your mobile phone. Many of these features work by sending a TXT message to Google “466453” (FYI: 466453 spells out Google on the keypad). TXTing weather Denver to 466453 will return the current weather in Denver as a text message. More importantly TXTing your zipcode along with the keyword pizza returns all the information you need for the perfect late night snack.

More Google search features:
http://www.google.com/help/features.html 

More Google SMS/TXT features:
http://www.google.com/mobile/default/sms/index.html

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