Google Voice Calling Hacks Provide Insight

If you’ve not been following this story, Google Voice (formerly Grand Central) offers free domestic calling via “click to call” on their site. A number of hacks have emerged over the past week or so to take advantage of this, particularly a Gizmo5 hack and Asterisk hack(s). Long story short, the Gizmo5 solution rapidly devolved. First it worked, then calls started getting cut off after 3 minutes, then 20 minutes, and now officially Gizmo5 is going to charge .02 per minute for Google Voice outbound calls, with thier new service GizmoVoice.

This thread on dslreports describes “the rise and fall of the Gizmoogle mashup” and explains why Gizmo5 had to start charging, suggesting that Google (Grand Central) blocked Gizmo and that Gizmo is now actually paying for the calls directly with their own termination service and using spoofed caller-ID:

in order to not lose face [Gizmo5] decided to keep the service open but route all calls through there [sic] own outbound servers with spoofed caller ID. they can not afford to do it for free so they are charging .02 per minute.

The current gizmoogle mashup is nothing but gizmo5 outgoing service with caller-id spoofed to your GV number.

The thing I find most interesting about all this, and what I don’t see being discussed much, is what it says about Google’s strategy with Google Voice. The story of how a small swarm of hardcore VoIP users could have such a huge impact in such a small amount of time, upon such a giant in the industry, Google, and their new flagship entry into the Voice space: Google Voice.

Google has elected to follow in the footsteps of others by offering free click-to-call calls with their free service. A user initiates a call on Google’s web site and Google pays for two outbound calls, one to the caller and another to the called party, and then bridges the calls together. However, the fact that Google was overwhelmed by the Gizmo5 hack, in just a few hours, suggests they don’t want to give away too many free calls. Every service before Google that has tried this same approach has run into the same dilemma: they use “free calling” as a trick to get customers, but then it works too well, and they have to start imposing limits on the free calls.

If mighty Google was overwhelmed by a few hardcore VoIP enthusiasts within a few hours, what is going to happen when this service comes out of “beta” into full production? They want the service to be popular, but they can’t afford for it to be too popular? That sounds like a problem.

UPDATE 9/13/2009: Google is now also blocking calls to “high termination cost” numbers like those used with many free conference calling services. See:

7 comments for “Google Voice Calling Hacks Provide Insight

  1. I think you made a few leaps there. Mightly Google was never overwhelmed with demand on this product. Gizmo was.

    The Gizmo service was actually very clever. Kudos to both Gizmo and Google. The service works flawlessly for inbound calls. Outbound creates a few challenges. The entire Google Voice service has outbound calling challenges. There are really only two ways – either Google calls you (as you describe in their click to dial), or you call out and spoof the callerID.

    The first one works fine and no one is overwhelmed with the demand or the ease of use. It is a hassle. I found a third party Firefox plug in that makes it much nicer.

    The second one isn’t Google at all – or Gizmo for that matter. Any SIP provider or even T1 provider could do the DID substitution as their service offering. It requires the right combination of carrier and phone system. Some carriers are pretty hung up about inserting DIDs that they don’t control – but some don’t care. The important thing is to address 911.

    I suspect you will see more and more carriers support this substituion. I also think we will see more and more services similar to Google Voice.

  2. Dave, at first Gizmo was initiating a (simulated) click to call on behalf of the GV user. These calls showed up on your GV call logs. This changed at some point, and these calls are now simply Gizmo outbound calls, which isn’t really a GV call at all. It might be because Gizmo couldn’t handle the load on the system simulating those click-to-calls, but many suggest that Google shut them down, or asked Gizmo to stop doing that.

    I agree that any provider could offer the caller-ID spoofing, but so what? That’s essentially the service Gizmo is offering now, as I note. It’s not really a GV call at all, at that point anyway.

    My main point is this little “event” portends the “free calling conundrum” in Google’s future and I’m pretty sure I’m right about that – I guess time will tell.

  3. I guess what I’m saying is, if Google likes offering those free calls that much, why don’t they give customers an API and a SIP interface to make them? Ah, because they don’t want it to be THAT popular – that’s my point in a nutshell.

  4. Very valid argument Mr Blog — but ….. this could well turn into a cat and mouse game with free offers (timebound) and even SIP offers either for income generation – or else to compete with the other service providers out there.

    Skype gave away IP calls and had a value add income generation option…. lets see what offers google voice and competitors can tempt us with.

  5. i really do not think that there is much attraction at all to google voice outside of the same group of VOIP enthusiast for anything whatsoever other than free calls. i am a long time GV(and grandcentral before) user and also consider myself a ‘VOIP enthusiast’ back when i was able to give out grandcentral invites i invited quite a few people. not a single one used the service as intended. most just used i for free outbound click2call and a few tried it as a way to add a second number to there cell phone; among the people in the second group most found it very cumbersome because of the mix of ‘call presentation’ and the extra voicemail box. they had no interest in those features. they just wanted a free DID forwarded to another number.

    i have always thought the whole ‘one number’ forwarded to ‘multiple phones’ has very limited appeal. a far more popular offering would be to offer ‘multiple numbers’ all forwarded to the ‘same phone’ and could be more effectively used for GV’s intended purposes. you would have one number that you give to family and friends that rings all the time, another for business associates that rings on weekdays otherwise voicemail, one for possibel telemarketers that goes straight to spam voicemail box, etc., etc.

    i do find the recent mass media portrayals of GV also to be very misleading. i have see a few news anchors literally describe GV a free phoneline replacement. if i mention it at a social gathering everyone has heard of it, wants to know when it will be available and many believe it is a way to eliminate your cell phone bill completely. the news about the iphone app rejection only has added to this general misinformation.

    so yes when it becomes generally available it will definatly be used overwhelmingly as a way to make free long distance phone calls. how google will react to that is what will be interesting. if the put ads in phone calls that will likely trigger a bit of outrage. maybe they can just eat the cost for a while. but suspect it would not be long before GV hardware devices that trigger the calls on user behalf in a completely transparent way start to appear to wreak some havoc. and if these device come with free DID’s to help out in the process that come from expensive rate centers(like IPKall’s) googles bank accounts will certainly feel the pain.

  6. Good comments, Tom. I agree. Time will tell.

    Regarding outbound calling, I noticed GV didn’t let me place calls to one of the free conference call services, using one of the “expensive rate center” numbers you refer to. I wonder if this was an accident or intentional on their part and whether they may now be blocking calls to certain numbers that they’ve identified as such. And of course in this process, I was also remined that there is no obvious way to report a problem with Google Voice to anybody – even Skype has a support email address that they sometimes respond to (moreso recently than in the past). I don;t see how that’s going to fly – not having any support – if GV wants to be my “one and only number”.

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