The flap between Google and Apple over the latter's rejection of the Google Voice application for the App Store has devolved to the point where the FCC has started poking around. I've been asking myself exactly why Apple or AT&T would stir up the hornet's nest to deny the technology and risk the ire of both the government and one of their most valuable partners, and also why each company's stance is full of contradictory actions.
After a little reflection, the answer became resoundingly clear: Apple is building a similar service to add to MobileMe.
First, let's look at exactly what Google Voice-formerly known as GrandCentral-currently is and is not.
As currently constructed, Google Voice is a VOIP-enabled relay point and voice mailbox, providing one-number accessibility to numerous phones.
Google gives you a phone number, which can be configured to forward calls to any other number you want. Put in your home, office and mobile numbers, and Google Voice will ring incoming calls through to all of them simultaneously to find you. If you don't pick up, Google Voice takes a voice message, which can be transcribed into text automatically and sent to you via SMS or e-mail. Or, you can listen to the message by logging into the Website or clicking a link in the e-mail.
You can also dial out via Google Voice, designating the phone on which you will take the call, in addition to the number you wish to dial.
So Google Voice is not a VOIP client in the traditional sense, unlike Skype or Gizmo. Because Google Voice forwards calls everywhere, the service will use VOIP to route calls around Google's network, but all calls will hop off to the PSTN or cell networks to find the callers at the designated endpoints. Certainly this could remove some calls from a mobile operator's billing purview and could definitely impact usage of its voicemail system, but really it depends on what the user sets and where they pick up.
AT&T has been the logical scapegoat in the App Store rejection, and surely over time the inclusion of the application on the iPhone could eventually lead to a reduction in minutes used by AT&T's customers. But while AT&T may have voiced some displeasure to Apple over the application, the service provider has done nothing to remove vestiges of the application from the rest of its network-it hasn't denied the application from other devices (BlackBerrys), nor has it blocked access to the Google Voice Web application.
As longtime GrandCentral users may know, the old Website was barely operational in mobile browsers as it was primarily Flash-based. Mobile users could not check their messages on the Web page, and iPhone users could not simply download a voice recording, as the iPhone didn't support that functionality.
However, since Google Voice appeared this spring, the Website works just fine through the iPhone's browser. Users can check messages, change settings or initiate calls. An on-device application would certainly make the experience cleaner and easier, and provide integration into the phone's contact database, but is absolutely not required for Google Voice mobile operation.
But, really, if it was solely AT&T looking to block Google Voice's entry into the App Store, couldn't Apple simply certify the application for international markets but not release it in the U.S. store? There have been plenty of instances in which Apple has certified applications in the United States but not made them available internationally. (Skype in Canada, anyone?) Surely Apple could do the reverse, if it was interested.
Instead, Apple rejected Google Voice outright, under the "Conflicts with existing services" blanket rejection, without specifying exactly where the conflict is. As we've seen in the past (with the Podcaster application and with NullRiver's tethering application, NetShare), Apple feels free to use this excuse even if it doesn't actually offer a comparable service at the time of rejection.
In hindsight in both of these cases, the conflicting features were in development at Apple at the time of rejection. Podcast downloading was added last November in iPhone OS 2.2, while tethering was added this summer in the 3.0 update, even if AT&T has not yet chosen to light up the feature domestically-in both cases, well after Apple's initial rejection.
Given that history, I think we can assume Apple is truly the primary culprit in the rejection of both Google Voice and associated third-party tools (GV Mobile) because it is building out its own one-number solution. I, for one, think that Apple was planning just such announcement for early next year, before the current brouhaha arose.
Let's face it: Right now, MobileMe is really boring and expensive, providing limited storage and duplicate communications services that many get elsewhere for free, despite the introduction of new Find My iPhone feature. One-number portability would greatly enhance the value and usability of MobileMe-as well as its viability in the marketplace. And since the market is still very young (Google Voice is available by invite only), Apple could quickly gain a sizable piece of market share if it could attract the still-burgeoning iPhone audience into the fold.
But first, Apple has to do a little of something it does best-stifle competition within its ecosystem.
Senior Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at email@example.com.