Sprint today becomes the first U.S. national carrier to integrate Google Voice services across its handset line-up. The network operator’s customers can opt to replace their Sprint (s s) phone number with one from Google Voice (s goog), or if they already have a number with Google, can configure their handset to display that number for outgoing calls and text messages. This optional Google service will be available not only on smartphones, where it is commonly used today, but also on Sprint’s feature phones, as it gradually rolls out.
I find the Google Voice service invaluable, and due to native integration, it’s a key reason why I’ve used both Google’s Android mobile platform and it’s Gmail services for the past several years. For those not familiar, Google Voice allows free calls and texts in the U.S. and Canada, can ring multiple handsets for incoming calls and supports voicemail transcription which forwards messages via email or SMS. In short, it’s an intelligent way to manage voice communications; especially for those with multiple phones or phone numbers. Plus, it offers low-cost international rates, call recording, call blocking, and personalized voice mail greetings for specific callers. And up to now, the service lived in the realm of smartphones.
With full Google Voice integration on all Sprint phones, feature phone users gain the same features that smartphone owners have enjoyed for the past few years. Not every low-end handset has an email client, but they all have text messaging support, so transcribed voicemails can still be routed directly to the phone, for example. And at some point within the next handful of years, as these feature phone owners upgrade to smartphones, they could have Android in their sights as the result of Google’s useful service that makes their “dumb phone” a little smarter.
Sprint likely gains in this deal as well: until another carrier decides to follow, Sprint has another service differentiator to tout. Don’t be surprised if another carrier makes the same move in the future, though. I spoke with Vincent Paquet, senior product manager of Google Voice, by phone, and he told me Google “discusses Google Voice integration with several carriers on a regular basis.” But differentiation isn’t the only benefit for Sprint.
Google Voice integration, when opted in by the customer, replaces Sprint’s existing voicemail service. By partnering with Google, Sprint can reduce costs to develop, maintain or outsource its voicemail service. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Google is actually paying Sprint some small amount for each new Google Voice customer. Google already shares advertising revenues with handset makers and carriers that use the Android mobile operating system; essentially paying companies to use its software. In return for using Android, and perhaps now for Google Voice, the search giant gains more consumer data from those who use its services. Just like traditional web searches on Google, the company gathers data and indexes information from Google Voice, which it can use for targeted advertising.
Since the service has traditionally been associated with smartphones, which don’t yet account for half of all phones in the U.S., the deal with Sprint is helping Google take its service to mainstream consumers. Many of these customers likely have never heard of Google Voice, so the potential audience pool becomes much wider, and that means more information, and more personalized services to offer in the future, for Google from those who opt-in.