SHIFT: Google Voice vs. AT&T — who's bullying whom?

Probably no other headline grabs our sympathy faster than "Big Bully Beats Up Little Kid." We immediately side with the bully-ee, not the bullier. But every conflict has two sides, and two perspectives.

A few weeks ago, the media reported that Apple had rejected, or was otherwise trying to stall a Google Voice application for the iPhone. The app would let users access their Google Voice accounts, bypassing AT&T for a lot of services, like text messaging. Great deal for users… not so great for AT&T. The story seemed clear-cut: Establishment baddies AT&T and Apple were beating up on power-to-the-people Google. But you know what they say — no matter how flat you make a pancake, there are always two sides.

Google Voice is fantastic. You get one phone number, and it rings a list of numbers for you — your home phone, cellphone, office phone, and even your mama's phone if you want. You can listen to voicemail, or it can transcribe voicemail for you. It isn't a VoIP service that transmits voice over the Internet, instead using the Web to determine where to route your calls through Google's servers, and transmitting voice over the regular telephone network. With VoIP, you can talk all you want over the Internet without using your minutes. With Google Voice, the carrier is simply a "dumb pipe," but you still use your minutes.

AT&T and Apple Are Two Bad Apples

In the U.S. the iPhone is only available through AT&T. And, although AT&T has stated that they played no role in Apple's rejection of Google Voice, you have to wonder how much of AT&T's potential pain influenced Apple's decision. Google Voice would certainly pull voice customers away from AT&T's calling services. AT&T has been known to take a dim view of some other iPhone apps such as some of the streaming music and video services (Pandora and Slingbox) that potentially gobble up large amounts of precious bandwidth. All those amazing apps that iPhone users just clog up AT&T's pipeline — most users love the apps but complain about the actual voice service. Did AT&T encourage or otherwise arm-twist Apple to ban Google Voice? Suspiciously, Apple has a list of VoIP programs that they do allow.

In a public statement, Apple says it hasn't approved the Google Voice app because it "appears to alter the iPhone's distinctive user experience by replacing the iPhone's core mobile telephone functionality and Apple user interface with its own user interface for telephone calls, text messaging and voicemail." In non-lawyer speak, Google Voice replaces the iPhone experience with a Google experience. Voluntarily or not, Apple is just trying to prop up its business deal with AT&T. Clearly, AT&T and Apple are your typical mega-corporation greedmeisters.

Or… Are AT&T and Apple Helpless Victims?

Wait a second. Doesn't AT&T have a legitimate gripe? When the FCC auctioned the spectrum that cellphones use, AT&T ponied up big bucks to use it. Meanwhile, Google sat back, paid nothing, and instead developed a way to parasitically tap into that bandwidth. If Google had wanted to be in the phone business, it should have purchased its own bandwidth when it was up at auction.

Besides, last time I checked, the iPhone was an Apple invention. Apple should have a say-so on how the "core mobile telephone functionality and Apple user interface" operate. Understandably, Apple doesn't want Google messing up their iPhone. It's Apple's sandbox; shouldn't it be able to make up the rules?

Mega vs. Mega

The story behind the story is even more interesting. For starters, Google isn't exactly your poor underdog, trying to break free of tyranny. Google is as mega as AT&T or Apple. And like any business, Google wants to please its shareholders. That is, it wants to make money. Google Voice isn't about good or bad, or telecom liberation. It's about profit for Google.

Google has gone from a search engine to a corporate octopus with tentacles in all aspects of the Internet, redefining how we handle news, e-mail, calendars, research, and now voice communications. Before you assume that Google is acting innocently, remember that Google has its own smartphone system, Android. And when Skype wanted to offer VoIP for Android, initially, Google held them back. The claim was that Google's software didn't support full-featured VoIP, so it only ran Skype Lite. Is that really the case, or were Google's motives the same as AT&T and Apple's? Apparently Google will block VoIP on its Android system at the request of individual carriers.

Hello, FCC?

The FCC has taken an interest in all this and is collecting statements from everyone concerned. This case, if handled properly by the FCC, may prove to be a watershed event in telecommunications. How will traditional phone companies mesh with the Internet? Who decides what phone software a consumer can run? How will we balance consumer freedom and choice, with reasonable corporate profit? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, the story continues to evolve. Like water over a dam, there seems to be no stopping this thing. Many consumers are not willing to choose between iPhone and Google Voice. They want to use both, and they should be able to. iPhone users are successfully working around the Apple roadblock by using Google Voice as a lightweight Web-based app that duplicates some of what the rejected iPhone app offered, such as the message retrieval, but not the actual phone calls.

Will Apple block access to that site? It'll most likely accept a revised version of the Google Voice app, but will that app be so watered down as to be useless? How do you think this should play out?