For the last few years, it has always felt like Google Voice, the company’s VoIP calling solution, was on its way out. Instead, the video-centric Hangouts was getting all of the attention. But fret not, Google tells me that it is “growing its investment in Google Voice” and starting today, it will integrate Voice and Hangouts with the launch of its redesigned Hangouts apps for Android and iOS, as well as on the web. This new version of Hangouts is rolling out to all users over the next few days and the Google Voice features will be available shortly after.
There are a couple of different aspects to the new mobile apps. The first thing you will notice is a different look that incorporates some of the features of Google Material Design. It’s all a bit brighter and simpler, but most importantly, the apps now feature a multi-tab layout that makes it easier to access your contacts, conversations and calls.[gallery ids="1056069,1056070,1056072,1056073,1056076,1056071,1056079,1056077"]
What this update is really about, however, is voice calls. Hangouts was always all about video. On the web and — more recently — on iOS, you could already make voice-only calls, but that was never something Google stressed. Maybe even more importantly, though, Google has now integrated free VoiP calls to all phones in the U.S. and Canada — even if you don’t have Google Voice. Calls to other Hangouts users are always free, no matter where they are.
To make use of these calling features, you have to have the latest version of Hangouts (2.3) and also install a special dialer app.
For Google Voice users, the update brings most of that service’s main features directly to Hangouts. This means Hangouts calls can now come from your Google Voice number, and voicemail transcriptions appear in the regular Hangouts chat interface, as do text messages to your Google Voice number. Google Voice users can also receive calls through Hangouts.
As for text messages, Google will give users a couple of options. There is a smart reply feature that will automatically send your replies from the number that received it (Google Voice or your regular phone number), or you can choose to always use Google Voice or your phone to respond.
According to the Google Voice team, there are still some control features and settings that haven’t made the move to Hangouts yet because the team decided to focus on the primary functions first and then take on some of the edge cases later.
For the time being, iPhone users will only get support for Google Voice calling. SMS and voicemail support is coming “soon,” according to Google.
As a part of this update, Google is also dropping the price of its international calls from Google Voice. Google’s rates were already quite competitive, but as the company told me, it’s constantly negotiating its rates, and that allows it to pass its savings on to its users now. For some countries, this means Google was able to cut rates in half (from $0.02 cents to $0.01 cents in some countries), but there are also a few where the prices remained stable.
So why this new focus on voice? “We think there is an important role for voice,” Amit Fulay, Google’s product manager of Hangouts, told me last week. “We want to emphasize people. The mode you use simply depends on the urgency level,” Fulay said. “We have text, video and voice. But that’s not where you start; you start with the person.” Google also found that its users would often make a voice call and then decide to step up to a full video call later.
Google has long said that Hangouts is the future of Google Voice. The regular Google Voice service and site will still continue to work for the time being and most importantly, Google says that if you have a Google Voice number today, it has no interest in taking that away from you. “The important thing that users should take away is that the number they have will be carried forward and the feature and functionality set will be growing,” said Google VP of Engineering Chee Chew in an interview last week.
This update will roll out over the next day or two, so if you don’t see it yet, don’t worry.