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Is Google Voice available for the iPhone?

TJ Luoma, @tjluoma

Need a refresher on the Google Voice and Apple saga? Let's recap the story to date:

Apple pulled all Google Voice related apps from the App Store back in July, which led to an FCC inquiry, which led Apple to claim they had not rejected but were "studying" Google Voice, which Google contradicted. The biggest surprise in the whole scenario is that AT&T said that they had no problem with Google Voice on the iPhone.

Yet here we are, 4 months later, and still no decision (that we know of) has been made. I've previously referred to this as Apple's pocket veto of Google Voice where they are able to say they haven't rejected it when they have, in effect, rejected it. Put it all together, and this has led me to put up a website for your "Google Voice on iPhone" questions, which I narrowed down to

As it stands today, the answer is a qualified "No" in that there are no Google Voice apps available from the App Store, but I was curious to see what options are available. I found three tools that you can use today, and one more which is on the horizon.

1) Google Voice's Mobile site: Using Mobile Safari, you can get to Google Voice's Mobile site and access a variety of features, including turning phones on and off, making calls or sending SMS through your Google Voice account. This works, albeit slowly, and you are unlikely to want to make many calls this way, it's just too much of a hassle. And did I mention that it's slow? Especially compared to a local app, it's pokey.

2) Google Voice Bookmarklet Generator: David Friedman came up with an ingenious method for creating Google Voice "bookmarklets" for calling people using your Google Voice number. He then shared that idea on his website, which led someone else to write a Python script which will convert your entire address book to Google Voice shortcuts. His goal was not to reproduce Google Voice functionality, but simply to make it easier to call people through Google Voice.

Check out the article where he explains how this works for more details. It's fairly geeky, but some of you may find it a good tool for your utility belt.

3) GV Mobile: One of the apps pulled from the App Store was GV Mobile by Sean Kovacs. Rather than see his work go to waste, Sean released GV Mobile for free to the jailbreak community through Cydia. Jailbreaking involves trade-offs (then again, so does "not jailbreaking"), but if they are trade-offs you are willing to live with, this is perhaps your best alternative today.

What if there was another option? What if there was a way to get most of the benefits of a native app, local speed, offline access... but without having to wait for the App Store approval process?

This is becoming an increasingly attractive solution to folks who are put off by the App Store delays, not only for initial approval (and the possibility of being yanked at any moment if Apple decides to "study" your app) but for updates. For example, what happens when you create a Twitter client for iPhone but Twitter makes API changes which render some or all of your app inoperable? Or, what if Google changes the authorization method for Google Voice? This happened recently, which broke some Google Voice apps that people had bought and downloaded before they were pulled off the App Store. Those developers have no way to get bug fixes to those customers who paid to buy their apps, which is bad for the developers (who get support requests for a problem they can't fix) and for customers who paid for apps rendered useless by Apple's arbitrary decision.

It turns out there is another option. Neven Mrgan of recently released an iPhone game called Pie Guy which is a web app, but is stored locally using HTML5. What that means is that it feels very much like a native app running at native-app speed, and it can be used offline.

Riverturn, which had developed a native Google Voice iPhone app called VoiceCentral, is looking to make the same approach for Google Voice. Instead of waiting for Apple to figure out if they are going to allow iPhone clients for Google Voice, Riverturn is developing an HTML5 web app which you download to your iPhone. It is called VoiceCentral Black Swan Edition and it is currently in "very limited beta." Those who have Google Voice accounts can sign up for the beta list at the website, which has some additional information and screenshots.

Riverturn provided access to the beta to a few of us at TUAW and the response was a unanimous "Wow." Quite frankly, if someone handed you an iPhone which had Black Swan already set up, I'm not sure that you would be able to tell it isn't a native app. I used it to place a few calls and it worked quickly, easily, and reliably. The best part is that when the app is updated, all users will immediately get the updated version. No waiting for Apple to approve it.

Web apps are not a panacea for the issues in the App Store. Before the iPhone SDK was announced, Apple promoted web apps as the best (and only) way to develop for the iPhone. It didn't measure up: many users knew it, developers knew it, Apple knew it (they had already developed native apps, proving that for some cases they were needed).

That said, there is a lot more than can be done with "web apps" than you might imagine, especially with HTML5 and local databases. Pie Guy is a great example of a web app game, and BlackSwan looks like it is going to be another great example of what developers can accomplish even when Apple gets heavyhanded about what can be offered on the App Store.

In my opinion, Apple has been overly restrictive with the App Store, keeping worthwhile apps from the hands of users who want them. These apps don't violate Apple's initial list of limitations of what would be allowed in the App Store (as discussed previously):

  1. Illegal
  2. Malicious
  3. Porn
  4. Privacy
  5. Bandwidth hog
  6. Unforeseen (the handy catch-all)
Google Voice apps do not fall under any of those categories (well, you could argue any app that didn't exist at the time Apple made its announcement was "unforeseen"). Apple had approved several of those apps and profited from them; then, without warning or explanation, removed them. It took an inquiry from the FCC to get Apple to make any statement about it at all, even if that statement includes the laughable suggestion that Apple needed more time to "study" Google Voice. They said that four months and two days ago. Apple could have completed an entire college semester course in study of Google Voice by now. Still we wait, with no recourse, and no alternatives other than jailbreaking our iPhones -- an action Apple considers hostile enough to violate the iPhone warranty.

I suspect that others will say "if you don't like the iPhone, don't use it." Except that I'm now in a contract with AT&T, a contract that I made based, at least in part, on Apple's promises regarding the availability of apps which did not violate the above 6 points. Even if I wanted to abandon my iPhone now, would Apple pay my early termination fee? Should we start yet another class action suit against Apple? Wouldn't it be easier on everyone involved if Apple would simply go back to its original guidelines for the App Store? How much faster would the review process be if the reviewers only had to worry about those 6 things?

As hopeful as I am that Apple will loosen its grip on the App Store, I'm not holding my breath, which is why I'm glad to see innovative developers like Neven Mrgan and the folks at Riverturn finding alternative solutions.

I'm planning a full review of VoiceCentral Black Swan when I've had more of a chance to use it. In the meantime I'll try to help you keep track of Google Voice's official status on the iPhone. I still hope that Apple will allow Google to release its iPhone app for Google Voice, as well as allow customers who have already bought and paid for apps to get bug fixes, etc. I applaud the folks at Riverturn for their ingenuity and creativity, and hope Black Swan is a terrific success. Perhaps it will inspire other developers to look at locally stored web apps as a development option.

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