Sprint has just revealed it's integrating Google's Voice digital telephony protocol into its cell phone network offering. When it first arrived Google Voice was thought to promise a revolution in the cell phone industry; is that what we are now witnessing?
Google announced the news, hot on the heels of a Sprint Nexus S 4G rumor, in a blog posting that starts by putting the move in context: "Over time we've worked to bring an integrated Google Voice experience to your mobile device by building mobile apps, introducing Google Voice Lite, and most recently number porting. But we felt that ultimately, the most simple solution would be to partner with carriers to seamlessly integrate Google Voice with your mobile phone."
Then Google revealed the killer news: "Today we'd like to share that we've teamed up with Sprint to do just that."
How can this be? Existing cell phone operators make money by owning (some may say "nickel and dime-ing") the entire space that their consumers operate in in terms of mobile communications: They own the cell towers, they organize how your phone calls get connected, they charge you for SMSs (which effectively cost them nothing, and return huge profits), they tell you when peak call rates apply, they decide how much you'll pay and how much mobile data you can access at what speed. AT&T is even getting clever right now with people who jailbreak their iPhone to sidestep an exorbitant "tethering" fee that's incurred if you want to use your officially un-jailbroken iPhone with its new Wi-Fi hotspot powers. Google's Voice system threatens this entire business ecosystem.
When Voice arrived, as a carrier-agnostic, universal-access telecoms solution that offered one phone number no matter what system its users utilized and a sophisticated array of network-beating options like automatic voicemail transcription, there was speculation it could completely change the industry. Apple and AT&T even acted, illegally to some minds, to suppress the use of Google Voice on the iPhone—to preserve their current business model. Some thinkers even saw Voice threatening the vogue for two-year subscriber contracts.
And yet here's Sprint partnering with Google, effectively making its own cell phone services entirely user-transparent in favor of Google's, and Google's explaining it as if it's merely a natural progression of its business plans. The deal will mean Sprint customers will be able to use their Sprint cell number as their Google Voice number, and thus have it ring multiple other phones connected to the Voice plan "simultaneously." Meanwhile, calls from within Gmail and SMSs will display the Google Voice number, or you can choose to supersede your Sprint number with the Google digits. It effectively gives all the benefits of Google Voice, like transcribed voicemail and cheap-rate international calls, "without the need to change or port their number" or the need for a dedicated app to run, which means Google Voice should be accessible even to non-smartphones.
For Google, it's a natural progression because it highlights how very useful the Voice system is, and how much it is on a par with the way more traditional phone networks operate. For Sprint, it could give the network a boost in subscriber numbers, and it may boost network performance as some voice calls will be routed to landlines or Gmail accounts over VoIP. But in the long term, this could really change Sprint's business—it'll have to restructure how it charges for mobile data and extras like SMSs if enough subscribers adopt Google's system instead. And that's where this deal is interesting: Did Google just insert an important crack in the cell phone business that it'll lever open later?
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