Last week TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington wrote a post highlighting the fact that iPhone users can get a surprisingly good experience using Google Voice if they’re willing to switch to Sprint. Google Voice on the iPhone typically has some hurdles, mostly because Apple won’t let the native Google Voice app ‘take over’ the dialer the way it can on Android (not to mention the fact that the iOS GV app is notoriously buggy). But Sprint has done some unique, deep integration at the carrier level that minimizes these issues.
His post got me thinking about my experience with Google Voice since I began using it exclusively in November 2009. My conclusion: there are a lot of areas for improvement. The latency and occasional cutouts range from mildly annoying to infuriating. Text messages sometimes seem to arrive much later than they should. And MMS simply isn’t offered for most people (Sprint just launched support, but none of the other carriers do).
But a few hours later, as I dealt with my carrier T-Mobile dropping two calls in succession, I realized there’s one simple feature that Google Voice could easily offer that would do a lot to make up for all of its quirks: VoIP support.
Between my home network, work, and coffee shops, my phone is connected to Wifi for the majority of each day. Wifi, as it happens, is really good at transmitting VoIP calls. Oh, and Android has supported native VoIP calling since Gingerbread was released last winter. So why am I still at the mercy of my carrier’s cell towers again?
It isn’t a matter of getting the feature working with Google Voice. Google Voice’s Gmail integration, which lets you make and receive calls from your computer, is done over VoIP, so the infrastructure is obviously there. In fact, Google actually had a functional Google Voice VoIP app for Android that was being tested internally by Google employees a year ago. But for some reason it never saw the light of day.
That reason is pretty easy to guess: the carriers would throw a fit.
Ever since Android started to take off with the Droid launch, Google has been in a balancing act between appeasing the carriers and giving users what they actually want. Case in point: Android devices support native hotspot functionality, but the carriers can disable it (unless you pay them more money).
Or, a more recent example: up until now it’s been impossible to delete carriers’ pre-installed apps (also known as crapware) from your phone, which is utterly ridiculous. Beginning with Android 4.0, you’ll be able to disable them. Not delete them, mind you — they’ll still be taking up space on your phone — but the phone won’t ever let them launch. Hooray…? Update: A commenter points out that these apps are baked into the firmware (i.e. Google can’t delete them entirely, though the prevalence of these apps seems like a big compromise in the first place).
Anyway, the point is that Google is treading lightly when it comes to improving Android in ways that could impact their relationship with the carriers. Google cares a lot more about getting as many Android devices as possible into users’ hands over the next few years than it does about giving them WiFi hotspots. And to boost that market share, they need the carriers on board.
Which brings us back to Google Voice. If Google were to enable Google Voice calling over 3G/4G connections, users would have very little reason to purchase their ‘voice minutes’ any more. This would obviously agitate the carriers, and isn’t going to happen any time soon. But Google could make another feature compromise: let us make and receive calls over our Wifi networks with Google Voice, and still use our ‘minutes’ whenever we’re on the go.
Some people may downgrade the number of minutes they buy, but they’ll still need a voice package. And the carriers will wind up with fewer infuriated customers, who’ll actually be able to make phone calls from their offices and homes without having their signal drop.