What’s so menacing about Google Voice? August 4, 2009
I’ve been doing what everyone else has: reading opinions about Apple, about how AT&T is comparable to Jack Nicholson‘s character in A Few Good Men, and how Google is a delicate flower in all of this. It is true: Apple’s policy of rejecting applications that duplicate services hasn’t been applied uniformly. Apple has approved VoIP and roundabout text messaging apps in the past, and applications using Google Voice didn’t appear so different. Although the service’s feature set is quite basic right now (the usual VoIP, 3rd-party text messaging, visual voicemail), the scope of Apple’s move suggests they wants to avoid being vulnerable to potential service upgrades. So, what service features could the Google backbone be key to producing?
Google does have an ever-growing suite of applications, and talented engineers creating and unifying them further. While Apple is a recognized innovator in the consumer product space, Google is the same for the space of internet services and applications. And there is definitely room for more innovation in the space of mobile services, and particularly VoIP technologies. While “regular” VoIP isn’t really a threat to AT&T, the reason is that the user experience of VoIP is sub-par, even in those that have a wide set of services – they are usually not very well integrated with each other, or with the phone. With the advent of push technologies and Google’s gifted manpower, they are the company most likely to provide and support a service powerful enough to supplant native calling and texting. From that perspective, allowing Google Voice applications to remain in the store would be to leave a gaping hole in AT&T’s defenses, which are already quite worn. But now that the FCC is involving itself, it’s not going to get easier for the cellular behemoth.
As far as the FCC goes, it’s interesting to see them stumble into the mobile space. Apple has been rejecting applications ever since the store was conceived of, and AT&T has had a death grip on their iPhone exclusivity deal (which is also coming under fire). Furthermore, the mobile space has always been messy and frustrating – mobile service providers occupy the same circle of Hell as insurance agents and tax attorneys as far as consumers are concerned. As Sascha Segan points out, there are bigger issues in the mobile space that really need to be tended to first:
The FCC’s time could be much better spent on actual industry-wide, anti-consumer collusions like overcharging for individual text messages, locking people into contracts well beyond the point when they’ve paid off their phone subsidies, or making exclusivity deals that prevent rural users from getting access to particular phones.
After all, such fundamental changes would allow consumers to easily switch to a phone they could install GV on, and this debacle would be irrelevant. FCC’s James Schlichting points out “pending FCC proceedings regarding wireless open access (RM-11361) and handset exclusivity (RM-11497)” exist, and it’s great to know that there are proceedings taking place. However, I’m surprised they aren’t focusing on those directly instead of sending letters to a company that is not on the decision-making end of wireless open access or handset exclusivity. I wouldn’t go so far as Segan to suggest that Eric Schmidt’s shoulder-nudge and wink-wink relationship with President Obama has played a role in the Apple smackdown, but since most FCC investigations go nowhere, I wouldn’t rule it out as a passive aggressive way to get on Apple’s case.