Google’s amazing Voice may be changing the whole telephony game, and it’s happily rocking on BlackBerrys and Android phones. But you won’t see a Voice app on the iPhone, since Apple’s officially killed it.
Speaking to TechCrunch, a spokesperson from Google explains what happened: “Apple did not approve the Google Voice application we submitted six weeks ago to the Apple App Store.” In other words Google did complete the app, presumably in parallel to its development for Android and BlackBerry, but Apple has officially rejected it. And the reason why doesn’t quite make sense–apparently Voice is guilty of that ol’ App Store rejection classic: “duplicating features” that the iPhone already possesses. It’s right there in the terms and conditions, and it’s partly why Apple recently rejected a Google Latitude app–it was too similar to the built-in Maps app, and might confuse users.
But is that the real reason you won’t see Voice as an iPhone app? What other reasons could possibly be at play here?
Google and Apple used to cosy right up together when it came to the iPhone. The built-in maps app–the only way to navigate on the device until the 3.0 firmware permitted proper navigation GPS solutions–directly accesses Google’s mapping data over the air. The YouTube app is one of the default apps that comes pre-installed on the phone. Mobile Safari’s search function defaults to Google.
Then along came Android, Google’s open standard OS for smartphones and, horror of horrors, the Google G1 smartphone–a direct iPhone competitor, which even has its own App Store. These developments must’ve caused a few headaches at Cupertino, and you can bet there was a lot of business diplomacy behind the scenes.
Has the inter-company rivalry, centered on their smartphones, escalated to the level where Apple kills the Voice app out of spite? I seriously doubt that. Voice is attracting a lot of attention, Google’s a huge player, and Apple would certainly not want that kind of bad PR. The rivalry certainly played a part in the decision, but it’s only a tiny part of what’s going on.
It’s just about plausible that the rejection popped out of Apple’s standard app review and approval process, with some junior Apple flunky applying the App Store rules dumbly. After all, the app store approval system has proven to be deeply flawed in the past, and inconsistent application of the rules has repeatedly led to bizarre rejection decisions–and some strange app approvals too.
I can’t believe it’s a simple mistake though. This is an official Google app, not a nasty iFart app from a two-bit developer–someone, somewhere in Apple will have alerted higher management to its existence. And Apple’s also pulled the independent GV Mobile Google Voice app, from developer Sean Kovac, which had received official blessings from Phil Schiller before going on sale–a move that suggests there’s a deliberate cull going on.
We know AT&T has influence inside Apple–the company is most assuredly behind the move to limit the iPhone Skype app to working over Wi-fi connections only. Skype is a big threat to existing business models for telecoms providers in both the fixed landline and cellphone worlds, and AT&T just isn’t ready to surrender some of its market to Skype.
Now, you can’t level the exact same argument at AT&T about Google Voice as you can for Skype–Google Voice isn’t a direct swap-out for using AT&T “voice call” minutes, like the VoIP powers of Skype. But it is a lateral-thinking approach to mobile communications that shoots right at the heart of the existing cellphone operator business–the one where AT&T sells you a phone number, a contract, voice minutes, a data allocation, text messages and such, and keeps tight control over it all. It’s a business habit cellphone networks have got us all thinking in parallel with…despite the fact that nowadays all that happens when you use your phone to make a call or surf the web, or even to make a VoIP call is that digital data flows back and forth between your phone and the nearest cellphone towers. Google Voice, which kind of side-steps AT&T’s business model and also offers reduced price SMSs, merely throws this fact into sharp relief.
The decision probably has been driven by AT&T–for all of those stated reasons. And it’s probably happened simply because AT&T has some sway within Apple, borne of the exclusivity agreement that ties the iPhone to that particular network in the U.S. Apple itself would have no real reason to kill the app–it’s clever, it’s sophisticated, it almost certainly represents the way mobile comms will operate in the future, and it doesn’t directly challenge Apple’s core business.
Is this fair? Nope. Is it a long term solution to the issue? No. Is it a great move for the American consumer (and those overseas too, using different networks)? Definitely not. Is it just a dumb, selfish, business decision, pushed by one of those money-grabbing cellphone networks that charge you for text messages that, technically, don’t cost them anything? You betcha.
Update: John Gruber over at Daring Fireball, a usually reliable source, has this to say on the matter: “so much for my speculation. A reliable little birdie has informed me that it was indeed AT&T that objected to Google Voice apps for the iPhone. It’s that simple.”