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The Fact & Fiction of Google Voice's iPhone Rejection

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[qi:gigaom_icon_voip] Updated: This morning’s tempest in the teapot involves Google Voice apps being rejected by Apple’s iPhone store. iPhone App Developer Sean Kovacs says his GV mobile app was pulled and since then several others have been rejected by Apple as well. Even Google’s official app has been turned down, because apparently it “duplicates features that come with the iPhone.” Some allege that Apple is doing this at AT&T’s behest.

That is just flat-out wrong: If it were true, then Google Voice would be banned on BlackBerry devices that use AT&T as well. As of this morning, everything is working fine on my AT&T-connected Bold (except for the usual dropped calls, of course). And are people forgetting that you need AT&T’s voice network to send and receive Google Voice calls?

As I wrote in my post, Meet Google, Your Phone Company:

The mobile app for Google Voice uses the regular PSTN connection to place a call to Google Voice, which then places a call out to the person you need to reach. Since these calls (and SMS messages) originate from your Google Voice, they display your Google Voice number for the recipients. The service needs a data connection but it isn’t necessary to have a Wi-Fi connection to place and receive calls. The wireless number you buy from the cell phone company becomes less relevant.

What The Web Is Saying
TheAppleBlog: Unless Apple somehow plans to introduce their own built-in Google Voice support in the near future, a scenario which I find highly unlikely, then this particular use of the feature duplication line is completely ridiculous.
Mike Masnick: this seems like an argument for why more open solutions will win out in the end.
Larry Dignan: The only way to elude these conundrums is to develop more browser based apps. The problem is that browser based apps require better connections. It’s quite a chicken and egg problem.
John Gruber: Don’t think about it in terms of Apple’s relationship with its carrier partners, but instead think about it in terms of Apple’s competition with Google. Google Voice is a mobile phone service provided by the maker of one of the biggest competitors to the iPhone OS. What if Google Voice were instead Microsoft Voice?

As a result, AT&T still gets to count minutes spent making and receiving calls via Google voice. So how is that bad news for AT&T? It’s not, and the only way it could be was if Google Voice worked over Wi-Fi. Apparently, even that hasn’t been much of an issue thus far because Apple has been approving WiFi-based VoIP apps.

If AT&T indeed was the villain here or Apple was against VoIP calls, then by now all voice applications would have been given the boot. My Skype, Truphone, Nimbuzz and Fring accounts are all working fine. You can download them from the iTunes store. So again, I think people are jumping to conclusions here.

Update: Our good friend, John Gruber says he has heard from a reliable source who tells him that it is indeed AT&T. I called AT&T PR and their response was: “We can’t say anything and Apple is the only one who can talk about the App store.” I emailed Apple PR and I am waiting to hear from them. Regardless, there is more that what meets the eye and I am not just yet ready to throw Ma Bell to the wolves (despite my personal distaste for their network.)

The other thing that really got me going about this was the idea of Google being the underdog. (I can hear it now: “Mommy! The big bad Apple is going to kill me!”) Well, if you believe Wired magazine, and there is no reason not to, there are certain officials in Washington who think Google is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and nothing but a big, bad monopoly (which I agree that it is.)

Google is using this so-called rejection as a way to score some karma points. Never mind the fact that it owns a competing platform called Android. When I asked Google about the whole fiasco, the company sent me this statement:

We work hard to bring Google applications to a number of mobile platforms, including the iPhone. Apple did not approve the Google Voice application we submitted six weeks ago to the Apple App Store. We will continue to work to bring our services to iPhone users, for example by taking advantage of advances in mobile browsers.

I, for one, would like Google to share with us the reasons Apple gave the company for rejecting its app. Otherwise, as I said… great way for them to earn Karma points.

122 Responses to “The Fact & Fiction of Google Voice's iPhone Rejection”

  1. Hamranhansenhansen

    > there are certain officials in Washington who think Google is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and nothing
    > but a big, bad monopoly

    Google played as the underdog is a joke, but it’s an even bigger joke to suggest there is a single soul in either Washington (DC or state) that knows bit one about technology. If they did, they’d be in Silicon Valley.

  2. I disagree:

    • AT&T is not technically able to block apps on Blackberry devices, so the non-banning of similar apps on Blackberry devices is a red herring
    • Google Voice results in lost revenue for AT&T due to text messages and international calls, as other commenters have detailed above
    • Google Voice makes people even more carrier independent than number portability provides — this is bad news for carriers
    • Apple has no real incentive to ban this app
    • Phil Schiller from Apple personally approved this app, originally

  3. As a recent convert from Windows Mobile to the iPhone, I do appreciate the polish and innovation that Apple brought to the mobile platform. However, it is ironic to me that Windows Mobile, while technically inferior and out of date, is the most open application platform out there. There are no restrictions whatsoever on the applications you can install on the device- in fact I’m not sure it’s even technically possible to have app-based DRM on WM. Maybe this is due to a lack of foresight on Microsoft’s part rather than some commitment to openness, but there’s an awful lot of innovation on WM these days- from alternate browsers like Opera Mobile 9.7, podcast RSS apps, to tethering apps that use the wifi hardware to turn your phone into a mobile access point. I’ll definitely keep my HTC Fuze around to see what’s happening in that application space.

    PS- I do miss multitasking, it would be nice to surf the web or check the weather while listening to a podcast.

  4. You say that if AT&T were responsible for blocking Google Voice on the iPhone, then it would have blocked Google Voice on Blackberry as well.

    I don’t know who made the decision, AT&T or Apple, but this reasoning is false. It is not possible for AT&T to block Google Voice on the Blackberry, whether they want to or not, because customers can install any application they like on a Blackberry.

    However, other people are making too much of the SMS argument: that AT&T would want to block any application that provided low cost SMS. Plenty of companies offer free or cheap text messaging for the iPhone, including Pinger (Textfree) and Gogii (textPlus).

    Google Voice is the boldest attempt that any company has made so far to reduce the phone company to a dumb pipe. Yes, you still pay AT&T for the calls, but that price is going to zero one day. The future may be ads, or content, or transactions, or something else entirely. If you route every call through Google first, Google will have the first bite of that revenue.

  5. The official reason: GV Mobile was “duplicating features that the iPhone comes with.”

    Apple needs to be punished, we should all use Android going forward. Android comes from a dozen mobile phone manufacturers, all competing on prices and features. While iphone is only Apple and is sold with ridiculously expensive mobile phone contracts.

  6. Is AT&T’s inconstant policies between Blackberries and iPhones sufficient to declare definitively that the idea that this was AT&T’s doing is ‘flat-out wrong’? I can think of a half-dozen reasons why GV apps would be pulled from the iPhone store due to AT&T demands while still being available on Blackberry.

  7. Om, in your relish to dismiss any outrage about this by painting Google as a bad monopoly, you’ve rather missed what the argument is actually about.

    The users are the ones losing out here, and developers who are even more worried about Apple’s capricious actions.

    If it’s not AT&Ts fault, then the problem highlighted is Apple’s closed, controlled app store, that is obviously leading to decisions that aren’t good for their customers. The fact that you think Google deserves no sympathy isn’t particularly relevant. It’s bad for the iPhone as a platform.

  8. Apple’s Google Voice rejection was last straw. Bye bye, iPhone and AT&T. Hello, Android. GV calling works flawlessly… and it’s free on T-Mobile. Just use your T-Mobile number and GV number in your myFaves.

  9. odysseus

    “As a result, AT&T still gets to count minutes spent making and receiving calls via Google voice. So how is that bad news for AT&T? It’s not, and the only way it could be was if Google Voice worked over Wi-Fi.”

    As Naga points out, you really don’t get it. You seem to ignore that without a SMS plan, AT&T charges 20 cents for each incoming and outgoing SMS message. If Google handles them, that’s lost revenue.

    But here’s another lost source of revenue. With GoogleVoice, you don’t need a Wifi connection to make international phone calls. AT&T currently charges $1.49/minute for those; doesn’t GoogleVoice charge under 10 cents a minute for most of those?

  10. Karl Bode

    To me, this is primarily about the cash cow that is SMS. A massive flood of iPhone users suddenly bypassing AT&T’s SMS charges? Imagine how that idea terrifies AT&T. The idea that AT&T pressure played a role here doesn’t seem outlandish to me, given they’ve already exerted pressure to cripple 3G functionality for both the Skype and Slingbox applications.

  11. With all the sales, new subscribers and higher rate plans that Apple has brought in, APPLE, not AT&T, has the leverage. AT&T can’t tell Apple to do anything. So while AT&T can be guilty of many things I think this case is clearly being driven by Apple. They are working on a similar app and don’t want to give Google a head start with single number identity. Watch for it this fall.

  12. altrenda

    OK, Om you’ve defended At&T, and slammed Google. Your version of “Leave AT&T alone!” And of course Apple is faultless.

    how about YOUR take why AppleT&T pulled the apps and told google they can only offer Google Voice as a web app?

  13. tom p.

    i’d have to disagree with this analysis.

    the existence of other apps that use voip or offer free text messages does not prove that apple or att didn’t reject the google app for anything other than purely competitive or strategic reasons. of course they’ll approve some rinky dink low quality apps from unknown start-ups so they can *say* they approve voip and sms apps. we can debate *who* didn’t want the app approved, but in this case you can bet both at&t and apple didn’t want a google app approved as they both have multiple things to lose – minutes, text messages, control of the user, control of the users phone number.

    this is typical behavior of the operators and now of apple, who have become another gatekeeper, just like microsoft and the wireless carriers were before them.

    apple is open to the extent it suits them. no more, no less.

    • I´m with you. It´s a great article, after everyone was hollering that ATT were the bad guys. Apple is a big boy, if they wanted to keep the Google Voice Apps, they would have. But they don´t. I still think that it was a PR disaster, but Apple are flexing their muscles, such as they are, versus Google. And since Apple users are ridiculously loyal to their brand, they´ll proabably get away with it. I have an ipod, it´s ok, and yes, it´s prrretty, but jeez it´s just an mp3 player. Not a way of life. Burn yoour Iphone today! Now that would be cool.

  14. Tim G.

    “And are people forgetting that you need AT&T’s voice network to send and receive Google Voice calls?”

    Not necessarily. The iPhone app could be used to control which line receives the call being placed. You could very easily use it to have GV dial your work or home number, bypassing AT&T altogether.

  15. Tim G.

    “If it were true, then Google Voice would be banned on BlackBerry devices that use AT&T as well.”

    Not true. The reason? AT&T has no control over what applications are installed/used on Blackberry devices.

    Since the App Store is the sole (official & legal) source for iPhone apps, AT&T has a say in what gets approved. The portability of a Google Voice number + unlimited free text messages is too big for AT&T to ignore.

    • I don’t understand the portability angle here. Sure, I could effectively port my GV number to any number of phones but, assuming I’m under contract with AT&T, my voice plan is a fixed revenue stream for them, and if I’m out-of-contract, I can just as easily port my AT&T-issued phone number as well.

      • Tim G, What GOOG wants is people to buy phones without contract, shop for the cheapest plan with adequate number of minutes. They sit in the middle and provide services. They would love to be able to port your ATT number to them, if possible. Will jumpstart the whole thing. But currently you cannot port from mobile -> fixed (which IMHO is the way FCC will look at them). Porting other way is possible. Over the long term even if porting is not possible, your GV number becomes your primary number and then the underlying number is irrelevant.

        GOOG-411 and such services can be monitized at a minimum. Just making GOOG-411 easier to use and in front of the eyes all the time will hurt the 411 revenue stream of the incumbents.

  16. DistortedLoop

    I agree with previous comment about many services blocked on the iPhone still work on Crackberry and other devices. The iPhone has hit AT&T in numbers it can’t handle, and AT&T must be in a terrible love/hate relationship over it with both Apple and the consumers who have the iPhone. Crackberry users are more likely business users and therefore less likely to Jack around with apps like slingplayer or google voice. Consumer type iPhone users are far more likely to suck up data with these apps, and far more likely to drop expensive SMS services and replace them with free Google SMS. Business users won’t hassle with it, or will be prevented by corporate IT policy.

    Makes mucho sense for AT&T to treat iPhone differently than other phones.

  17. Jim Bentley

    As Thin Lizzy says, “Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak, Somewhere in this town.” Interesting debate. Thanks for clarifying why AT&T is not the evil empire (this time).

  18. How do you then explain the well publicized banning of Sling on iPhone yet it appears on BlackBerry. Same with Qik. This has been widely reported to be an AT&T issue.

    Simply put the iPhone user eats LOTS more data than the BB user.

    Let me know what I’m missing here.

    • Fletch

      I have the same question, and was prepared to use Sling as my example, too.

      “That is just flat-out wrong: If it were true, then Google Voice would be banned on BlackBerry devices that use AT&T as well.”

      The bottom line is that AT&T is *already* treating iPhone apps differently. I’d be able to watch my Slingbox over AT&T 3G if I’d just switch to a Blackberry. Sling’s iPhone app is neutered to WiFi-only at AT&T’s demand.

      Why would the Google Voice apps be any different?

  19. Looks like you missed the point completely.

    You can send free text messages from google voice and that must have really bugged Apple and ATT.

    Also, Apple did pull Google’s voice app out as it did for other google voice apps not made by google.

    So if people are ticked off about Apple’s high handedness its justified. I guess people havent realized yet that everything they thought they bought from Apple is really on rent from Apple.

    Really Pissed at AAPL/T

    • there are apps still available in the App store that let you send SMS messages via web sites. And Google Voice’s mobile page still allows you to do this too.

      Not exactly going to make AT&T much money when there are so many other ways to still do it.

  20. i disagree with one point being made here – the assertion that GV does not impact ATT. it does. yes it uses their airtime. but GV makes that number the number your primary number. in theory you can port anytime or move to prepaid etc and not care about the service provider. this is not easily possible today with iphone, but GV will surely dilute the operator voice brand.

    whether this led att to pressure appl, i do not know. i do not believe att has any leverage over appl at this point. it was probably just APPL’s own doing. so agree with your assertion that goog may be just looking for PR at the expense of ATT.

    • @anon
      Number porting is a hypothetical situation with GV…no positive indication has been provided that number portability will be allowed. While I agree that it is an easy process, we have not heard anything assuring us that this will be possible. I am assuming that the reason portability is not a feature of GV is for the same reasons you state above…and Google is aware of that…especially since they do have their own handset branded os in the marketplace.

    • @judahe

      Not only do the voice calls go over ATT’s PSTN but they are also considered non-network calls so calling contacts that are ATT subscribers which used to not count against the callers monthly minutes will. If anything this is better for ATT.

  21. Nikhlesh

    Om, you have brought in a nice viewpoint here. However IMHO, the article does’nt go well with the title. The post have not tried to speculate the “real reason” why Google Voice was rejected. It does’nt even try to prove that the application was rejected because it “duplicates features that come with the iPhone.”

    Apple has rejected applications at will for a long time now. Its Apple which has run the App store like a monopoly. I agree with their logic that by filtering applications which are available for the iPhone on App Store they are reducing cases of malicious applications. But this is not the case here. Apple is not being ethical in forcefully “reducing competition” just because people have bought the iPhones and have not jailbroken yet. Google has been better in this aspect in providing an open platform & providing choices to the users.

    • It’s not run like a monopoly, it is a monopoly, a *natural* monopoly. Who else makes an iPhone? Or for that matter, and iPhone clone? No-one. Therefore Apple has a natural monopoly. Except they don’t. You don’t like the terms and conditions of the licensing agreement? Don’t buy iPhone. Don’t like the development terms? Develop for another platform. Apple have less than 5% of the global market share in mobile phones, based on physical shipments, so whichever way you look at it, legally Apple have done nothing wrong, how can they have a monopoly? It’s about time that this sort of post was brought to task. The term monopoly is being used (and abused) to cheaply. Please guys, learn what it means. The OECD has an excellent reference site for this sort of thing if you want to understand the basics of competition law.

    • With a headline claiming “the fact & fiction”, I expect facts. This article is nothing more than a nicely distilled summary of all the speculation I’ve already read.

      “If it were true, then Google Voice would be banned on BlackBerry devices that use AT&T as well. ”

      AT&T lacks technical and/or legal means to prohibit Windows Mobile and Blackberry users from installing third party applications. AT&T can’t sue Google for offering a Blackberry app. All they can do is ban things in the terms of service, and pray people will obey. Apple has declared themselves gatekeeper for iTunes Store content, and that makes Apple responsible for its content. Apple and AT&T have agreements in place. Through those agreements, AT&T gains a level of control over third party applications they don’t enjoy with the other handsets.

      “Update: … it is indeed AT&T.”

      Whoops. You mean that previous speculation might be wrong? Really? :)

      You wrote a great article, but your headline is very misleading. We still don’t really know the facts. Your “update” includes a rumor that sounds pretty plausible to me.