Google Voice: AT&T's real fear?

Much has already been written about the rejection of Google’s official iPhone application from the Apple App Store. For some reason, Apple – at AT&T’s request, people suspect – refused to allow the application to be offered through the offical App Store, and indeed deleted unofficial applications offering similar facilities which had already been approved previously.

Apple themselves have no apparent motive for rejecting the Google Voice application; even if it used an undocumented interface, which is normally enough to trigger an app’s rejection, Google have done this before (in Google Mobile, with the proximity sensor) and Apple turned a blind eye. It isn’t Apple’s revenue stream Google Voice threatens, give or take whatever cut Apple get under the revenue sharing deal. Apple, on some official level, will have been aware of the unofficial Google Voice client applications when those were submitted, but still approved them, suggesting the functionality did not break any of Apple’s own rules, stated or otherwise.

AT&T, on the other hand, are in a very different situation. It has already been established that they influence the application approval process, which is why the Slingbox client was restricted to prohibit use over AT&T’s network, streaming only over WiFi. In that case, the change AT&T wanted was obvious: they prevented this use of their network, since without installing the Slingbox client you couldn’t stream that video. With Google Voice, the situation is very different: what would AT&T gain by blocking the installed native application, when you can use Google Voice through the web interface anyway? Unlike Apple, AT&T don’t see every single application submitted, only those which attract attention – for example, by coming from a multi-billion dollar corporation just breaking into the voice communication business. Once they started investigating, they would then discover the third party clients doing the same job, and want to put a stop to those as well.

Most analysis seems to assume it’s all about the calls, those precious minutes of airtime charges. Many seem to have assumed – wrongly – that Google Voice is a VoIP service, that Google Voice routes your calls over the data connection just as the (approved) Skype application does over WiFi connections. If that were true, AT&T would certainly have a reason to object – but it isn’t: Google Voice services are regular voice calls. Initiate a Google Voice call via the client application – native or web – and Google Voice triggers a three way call between itself, your handset and your destination, so AT&T get to charge for the minutes of airtime you’re using. It’s an incoming call rather than an outgoing one, but that has no impact on the charges: a minute of airtime is a minute or airtime, regardless of direction! Equally, blocking the application makes little difference: you can still use this feature through the web interface anyway.

Where the difference does matter, though, is text messaging. Sending and receiving text messages via Google Voice does indeed divert traffic onto the data connection, bypassing AT&T charges of up to $20/month – which, of course, are almost pure profit for them. You can still send messages through the web interface and escape these charges – but to receive any replies that way, you would have to have the web page open! Native applications can receive push notifications, which would allow your Google Voice text messages to pop up in exactly the same way as regular messages sent through – and charged by – AT&T. The web interface can’t do that: by blocking the native application, AT&T ensures that only their own expensive text messages have this important feature. Hit ‘reply’ to such a message, and that reply gets charged for by AT&T as well.

The only weakness of this hypothesis is that AT&T have not blocked the Google Voice client for BlackBerry. That is easily explained: where iPhones (unless jailbroken) can only run applications downloaded from the offical Apple store, requiring explicit prior approval from Apple to run – permission AT&T can persuade Apple to withhold or revoke – the BlackBerry simply downloads and installs applications over the Internet. Using RIM’s push notification requires going through their servers and paying them a fee – perhaps AT&T could push RIM to withhold that, but unlike the iPhone case, all this would achieve is preventing them from using push notification, not block the whole application; it also seems likely AT&T have less influence over RIM than they do with Apple in this respect, thanks to the big-ticket exclusivity contract.

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