Even if it's not quite as amazing as it could be, Google Voice does some wonderful things. That's what makes it hard to admit the truth: It's time for Google Voice to die.
When Google Voice launched in 2009, it was straight-up awesome. The concept of re-inventing the basic systems of telephonery for the digital age came with a whole bunch of fantastic features, many of which still kick ass today. Getting a transcript of your voicemails in your inbox? Perfect. Phone calls ring all your phones instead of just one? Instant must-have. Sending SMS and making voice calls from your computer? How did I ever get by without it?
But Voice has never been able to live up to its sizable potential. Features like MMS support have been "in the works" for years without ever coming to fruition. Voice mobile apps have been slow to update on the rare occasion they've received meaningful updates at all. The Google Voice web interface is wonky and awkward and sometimes just doesn't work. And when it breaks, there's pretty much nowhere to turn.
Of course, it's doesn't help that Google lets its other services step on Voice's toes. Just like Google Talk's chat feature rendered Google+ Messenger chat bizarrely superfluous, Google Talk's voice calling was both at odds but also weirdly reliant on Google Voice.
Voice's greatest strength is that it makes phone calls easier, but its greatest weakness is that it almost always requires an actual phone. And when it doesn't, there's some weird handoff going on. Voice can't do PC-to-PC calling; that's a Talk's feature. Taking a call from a phone on your PC? Also Talk, but a Google Voice connection is mandatory. Calling phones from your PC? Talk again, but this time with optional Voice support. Sound convoluted? It is.
And when you add tablets—mobile devices but technically not phones, at least most of the time—to the equation, the distinction between devices that are phones and ones that aren't is more irrelevant—and more infuriating—than ever. Ever try to make a Voice call from a tablet? Don't. It will make you sad inside.
When something's this badly borked, you don't just tweak it. You blow it up and start fresh.
One Client to Rule Them All
That, of course, is where Google's new Hangouts come in. A single, unified Google chat service has been a long time coming, rumored for months before it finally burst on the scene at Google I/O last week. Assimilating Google communication services like a chat-client Borg cube, Hangouts is eating its predecessors alive; the really unnecessary ones—like Google+ Messenger—have already bit the dust in Hangouts' wake. This is a much needed culling, a big simplification.
And fortunately, Google Hangouts isn't a complicated mess; it's less than the sum of its parts, and better off for it. During the big merge, things like Google Talk's online/offline/invisible statuses got simplified right out of existence. And so did the ability to make Google Voice calls out from your computer through Google Talk. And while plenty of users have cried out in anguish, this was a long time coming. If this is going to be Google's One True Chat Client (and it is), it can't afford to be bloated from the start.
And sure enough, Google's Nikhyl Singhal has come out on Google+ to promise that features like outbound web calls are coming to Hangouts, just like SMS support. Voice will be coming to the party too:
Hangouts is designed to be the future of Google Voice, and making/receiving phone calls is just the beginning. Future versions of Hangouts will integrate Google Voice more seamlessly.
"Hangouts will integrate Google Voice." Just what everyone wanted, right?
Google Voice integration may sound like more Hangouts features on the way (and who doesn't like more features?), but it's probably just another collection of problems in disguise. Google Voice has always been a great idea, but it's never been a great service. Its proposed features have always sounded idyllic, but they've never quite been functional or even existent. More literal Google Voice functionality in Hangouts will only ensure one thing: that Voice features that barely work now might continue to barely work down the line. We shouldn't settle for that.
The corruption is happening already; the Google Voice plague is spreading. Hangouts lost the ability to make outbound calls the way Talk could, but it can take inbound ones. How? By getting in bed with Google Voice. Less than a week into this brave new world, and Voice is already latching on to the new kid, bringing its arbitrary distinctions between phones and not-phones along with it like body odor.
So long as Google Voice is still around, its features—however awesome—are going to continue to be hamstrung by its faults. And as we've seen for the past three years, Google is never going to throw its weight behind Voice in the way it'd need to to make that service succeed.
Hangouts, on the other hand, is the search giant's great hope for the future of messaging. It'll get all the nurturing it needs and more. Just look at the unrelenting, like-it-or-not push Google has made behind its One True Social Network, Google+; Google will make Hangouts succeed through denial and sheer force of will if that's what it takes. So maybe if Google Voice shuffled of this mortal coil, the best features it had—and the ones it never got around to having—could roll into Hangouts in their purest form, instead of being haphazardly crammed in by way of forced cooperation with a broken legacy.
Sure, the risk is that Google Voice dies, and its best features never actually materialize in Hangouts. But the alternative—tying ourselves to a service increasingly held together by digital duct tape and shoved ever further in the corner—isn't much better. The best thing we could ask for is for Google Voice to die right now so that its best broken promises are free to go to Hangout heaven. And then we cross our fingers and hope they make it there.