Celebrating A Year Of Apple Pondering Google Voice

My, how quickly things change. It wasn’t much more than a year ago that Apple and Google were happy partners — at least from the public’s perspective — working in tandem to push technology forward at a clipping pace. Google’s search and various apps complemented the iPhone perfectly, and the existing Android phones merely affirmed how much better the iPhone was than everything else on the market. And then everything went to hell.

Late last July, we broke the news that Apple blocked Google’s official Voice application and removed any third-party applications that supported the service, sparking an FCC inquiry into why Google Voice was banned from the iPhone.

Today marks the one year anniversary of Apple’s response to the FCC, in which it gave a remarkably disingenuous explanation as to why Google Voice wasn’t on the iPhone: Apple was still “pondering” the matter. A year later, it apparently still is.

Google Voice is nowhere to be found on the App Store, and while Google has developed an impressive web version for the iPhone, it can’t provide the same performance or ‘native feel’ of a native app and it can’t access the phone’s local contacts directory (at least, not yet). In light of today’s milestone I reached out to both Apple and Google to see if there’s been any progress. Both declined to comment.

Of course, Google Voice itself was never the key issue at play — the service was only available in a private beta when it was blocked from the iPhone. Indeed, most of the outcry stemmed from the fact that Apple was blatantly using its control over the App Store’s walled garden for anti-competitive reasons. Before the Voice fiasco Apple had drawn plenty of heat over its inconsistent App Store approval policies, but most of these removals could be ascribed to the notion that Apple was censoring apps to help maintain the quality and safety of the App Store. That clearly wasn’t the case here: Apple saw Google’s increasing presence on the iPhone as a threat, so it killed it.

Soon after the Google Voice fiasco, I abandoned my iPhone for Android (TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington quit his iPhone too). My rationale had little to do with wanting to use Google Voice more frequently. Rather, it had a lot to do with the knot I got in the pit of my stomach as I imagined just how important Apple’s stranglehold over the iOS platform will become in the next five years and beyond.

The runaway success of the iPhone and the iPad have made it clear that the App Store and iOS are only going to become more ubiquitous. The new Apple TV will soon feature them. In all likelihood Apple will find ways to integrate iOS into form factors that are more competitive with desktop and laptops. Simply put, iOS will be synonymous with computing for a lot of people.

Tim O’Reilly believes that Apple is trying to build a fundamental challenge to the web. A web controlled by a single company. Apple may have intended to use the App Store’s approval system to protect customers and the user experience, but it has the convenient side effect of enabling it to stifle anything that could compete with its own products on the iOS platform. Remember, we are still very early in this game, and the App Store had existed for just one year before Apple gave Google the boot. Is there any doubt it will do the same the next time someone tries to encroach on its turf?

Most of Apple’s ardent defenders will simply tell people like me to go use another, more open platform if they have a problem with the App Store and Apple’s policies. Fair enough. But the time and uncertainty involved in having to switch to a new computer platform are far from trivial, and eventually we may have kids who are raised on iOS — getting them to switch platforms so they can use an innovative new browser or FaceTime competitor or whatever else Apple is quietly blocking from the App Store will be no easy task.  It is this inertia, which is only going to become more difficult to overcome as iOS becomes more successful, that troubles me most. Apple will be able to get away with even more egregious behavior, because its users will want to stick with what they know.

Disclosure: Months after the Google Voice/Apple story broke I had my number ported over to the service (just as Michael did). All users will be getting access to this feature soon.

Image by Brian Hillegas