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The Google Voice rejection: What's needed now


If you've been following coverage of Apple's rejection of Google Voice for iPhone, you saw TUAW blogger Chris Rawson considering whether pressure from AT&T might have been behind the Google Voice rejection -- an assumption first floated by TechCrunch and later substantiated by Daring Fireball. The absurd nature of the app removals is highlighted in the blog post from Riverturn, developers of VoiceCentral, which reports the conversation with an Apple representative.

Google Voice offers free call forwarding to your home, office, and cell, free Internet-accessible voice mail (with text transcription!), free SMS, and a single phone number for life. These free features compete against AT&T's revenue streams.

When it comes to "duplicate functionality", Apple doesn't seem to have any problem allowing applications like AT&T co-branded Virtual Recptionist (iTunes link) in App Store. Virtual Receptionist provides custom call forwarding to three phone numbers, in a similar manner to Google Voice.

In the wake of the rejection, sites like Wired, which should get credit for predicting this issue, have considered whether Apple's move might invite regulation due to the company's control over the App Store and possible anti-competitive concerns. A legislative response isn't out of the question should enough unhappy customers start petitioning their congressmen, especially in a political climate that encourages government intervention in private business. Granted, the iPhone isn't a monopoly among smartphones, but Apple does hold all the cards when it comes to app approval on the platform.

ChannelWeb's Rick Whiting (via the Wall Street Journal) points out that the US Department of Justice has "begun investigating whether large U.S. telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Verizon Communications were engaging in anti-competitive behavior, including locking up the most popular handsets. The exclusive deal between AT&T-Apple is said to be drawing the most scrutiny." Whiting believes that AT&T and Apple may be drawing attention from a DOJ intent on cracking down on exactly this kind of excess. AT&T's tight relationship with Apple might be affecting how Apple runs App Store, as might be the case with the Google Voice rejection.

Leaving aside any possible legislative or DOJ responses, maybe Apple needs to finally consider parallel App Stores. For example, Apple might introduce an iPod touch-only sub-store to sell applications that AT&T does not approve of. No cell phone, no AT&T, right? At this time, the App Store does not offer an "iPod-only' sales option. (For 2.x firmware, developers can specify some device limitations like iPhone-only; from 3.0 onwards, developers list required capabilities, e.g. requires an onboard camera.) In no scenario, however, do I expect Apple to willingly open up its platform to competing stores from other vendors.

For now, the only store that competes with App Store is Cydia, which distributes applications in the jailbreak arena. Cydia is small peanuts compared to App Store. It's moved a quarter million or so dollars worth of product in about four months. That's great news for Jay Freeman, who developed the Cydia store, but not much of a threat to Apple's dominance over its proprietary platform.

Developer Sean Kovacs, whose ported GV Mobile application was pulled from App Store, moved his app into the Cydia Store. He is offering the application for free, although as Engadget points out, he welcomes donations. He'll be greeted as a jailbreak hero but the impact from his move on Apple will be minimal.

The lack of a Google Voice application on the iPhone doesn't mean you can't use the service, even today, on an iPhone. You can use the Google Voice mobile website to to call yourself and then use the interactive service to set up an outgoing message. From what I read, the process is awkward at best. (Yes, I'm still waiting for my invite.)

No one expects Apple, or AT&T for that matter, to act against their own interests. At the same time, how far will they alienate their developer base with moves like this one that showcase how hard it is to create a business plan for a completely closed platform? For now developers continue pounding at the doors to get into the iPhone developer program. But with a history of capricious rejections, an opaque review process, and the possibility that your accepted application might be yanked (as were both GV Mobile and VoiceCentral), more and more developers will be getting the message that Apple's iPhone platform is too risky to develop for.

TUAW contacted Google for an official statement on this matter. A Google spokesperson replied, "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."

Apple's spokesperson stated that Apple had no comment.

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