Google Voice – Friend Or Foe of (Very) Small Business Telephony?

I find myself increasingly torn when it comes to Google Voice. As a very early adopter of the original GrandCentral’s services back in ’07, I’ve always appreciated the offering for its innovation and simplicity. And of course held great respect for GrandCentral’s founders (and for anyone else who can sell voice companies to both Yahoo and Google in one lifetime!)But since the official launch of Google Voice (GV) – and its gradual evolution of (often compelling) features – I have sometimes grown frustrated of the doomsday predictions or questions surrounding the sustainability of the many micro-business telephony solutions, in the face of this free set of services.Micro-business is typically understood as companies with 1-5 users, of which there are millions in the US alone. I’ve been fortunate to be on the go-to-market side of more than one startup focused on this segment; it’s a population rich with opportunity, yet one that that adopts at varying speeds.Google Voice actually serves as an excellent reminder to us all of how deep this very small business market is, and of just how long it takes to get to its long tail. You see, features such as the ones included in GV have been available to the micro-business for five if not more years now. In fact, the virtual PBX (a name dying for a makeover) was perhaps the first example of telephony moving to the cloud. Yet since GV’s market entry, one would think its features just dropped from the sky.Yes GV is free. But for the micro-business person, free is not always the answer. Value, vendor relationship and access to support play key roles in spend decisions. After all, the telephone experience is – now more than ever with mobile proliferation – the first impressions theses businesses offer its customers.When Google Attacks: Could be good news.In late December, Om Malik wrote an insightful blog on a related issue called ‘When Google Attacks’. It recounts how Toktumi, a small business telephony provider, ran into the Google Voice wall. Its original product packaging no longer separated itself adequately from GV, so it shifted gears, added a more mobile front end, fine-tuned its customer acquisition (using Google, ironically) and went full speed ahead.And when I talked recently with the CEO’s of market leaders like Grasshopper, I heard more of the same: GV is, in a fashion, good for business. All around me, I see other evidence of growth from innovative companies delivering features or services that form Google Voice:- Long Distance: GV, especially on its app, make this easy. But the calling card business does not go quietly, and next gen mobile services like Truphone orVopium are accelerating.- Call Recording: This has gone mostly unsaid, but GV allows for the recording of calls. This is really an untapped market that requires demand-stimulation. Companies like Cogi are moving fast and gaining traction.- Voice Mail Transcription: This could be the most controversial or talked about feature. But companies like PhoneTag have so far come through the battle with flying colors.Sure, for all these companies, GV’s entry was and continues to be cause for alert – and surely resulted in more than one call of concern from their respective investors. But alerts are healthy. It forces a re-check on product packaging, customer acquisition/retention formulas and on overall focus. And as Google integrates Gizmo5, and possibly it existing business apps, the feature set will grow – and this cycle of alerts will repeat.For now Google Voice and its ever-expanding set of smart features serves the sole proprietor and the mobile professional well as either an over-the-top or primary telephony solution. But it’s not killing a market; rather, it’s expanding one. Its marketing muscle is pushing next gen telephony into the late adopter pool.Besides, as James Siminoff recently declared in his keynote address at StartupCamp Telephony…’if you can’t deal with Google coming into your space, then get out now’. ‘Cause they’re coming.’

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