When you look at the value of the services offered by Google Voice – call forwarding to multiple numbers, call screening, cheap international rates, voicemail to text, free text messaging – you get some idea why the FCC has zeroed in on Apple’s decision to reject the Google Voice app for the iPhone.
The blame game for the decision has been somewhat farcical. AT&T says it has nothing to do with Apple’s approval or rejection of the application, yet Apple says the decision was made because the application duplicates some services offered by the iPhone (and AT&T). And there sits Google, its CEO awkwardly poised on the board of directors at Apple (until about two days after the FCC launched its probe of the situation). It’s all very incestuous and indeed ripe for scrutiny by the FCC as a part of its broader investigation into wireless industry competition.
Jeff Orr, mobile device analyst at ABI Research, says that regardless of the reason for the decision, Apple may have some changes to make in the near future as a result of the drama. "Perhaps one of the outcomes we’ll most likely see happening is Apple will start sharing some of their criteria publically,” Orr says, adding that the company may need to implement an appeals process for developers whose apps are rejected.
The Path of Least Expense
Before anyone gets too concerned that powerful, fickle-minded OEMs and carriers are going to kill off innovation in the name of profit, it’s prudent to remember that technological innovation has a history of prevailing. Just look at the music industry for a glimpse at how plugging one hole (Napster) only leads to more profound leaks in other places (bit-torrents).
The case of Google Voice, and other services like it, isn’t much different. What Google Voice represents is a kind of path of least expense that technology innovators seem to naturally seek. Fair or unfair, in its current form as it pertains to the wireless industry, that usually means circumventing the carriers whenever possible.
For instance, using only a Wi-Fi hot spot and an iPod touch, sans carrier, anyone can call any landline in the United States with a $2.95 per month Skype subscription. Some even argue that carriers’ recent relegating of VoIP applications to Wi-Fi only flies in the face of consumer rights. Granted, needing to be near a hot spot presents its own limitations, but it’s illustrative of where voice is going – directly over the Internet. Why? Because whether you’re a consumer or a carrier, it’s just plain cheaper.
Regardless of its reasons for blocking Google Voice, Apple’s reputation could suffer as a result. It appears that one of the industry’s most innovative device creators emerges from the most recent hubbub as a luddite, and dare we say, “anti-competitive?”
However, Orr urges caution and perspective. “We have to step back and look at 18 months ago and realize that it was only that long ago that we didn't have the ability to ad content to devices.”
Others Join In
Of course, there are others looking to offer cheap alternatives. Andy Jagoe, CEO and co-founder of 3jam, a company that offers a service similar to that offered by Google Voice, said his company wants to offer consumers not only an alternative to its mammoth competitor but added value. “I don’t think anyone believes that Google will be the only provider of a next-generation communications service. 3jam’s goal is to help people get more from their phone numbers and save money while they’re doing it,” Jagoe says.
Jagoe says that while he’s excited about the “one number for life” strategy, 3jam sees other use cases for the technology. “We enable you to get a phone number for every group in your life … For example, if you coach a soccer team, you can get an inexpensive virtual number for the soccer team to help people stay in touch. You can record a voicemail with game and practice information so anyone can call and get the latest details.”
3jam goes one step further and terminates VoIP into Gtalk, AOL, Yahoo IM, ICQ – which now all support voice. But if you’re looking for a reason that carriers might be cautious of these services, look no further than Jagoe’s description of 3jam’s plans for its service on Peek messaging devices. 3jam works by ringing two numbers at once. So if you make a call from a 3jam-enabled device, the service is ringing not only the number you’re calling, but also the phone(s) you’ve designated to ring in association with your 3jam number.
Peek offers cheap devices, with cheap connectivity, that currently deliver a solution for those who just want to send texts. But if Jagoe has his way, that won’t be the case anymore. “We're providing our service on top of their device … We're going to be delivering SMS capabilities, and we hope to put phone numbers on there as well. It makes a lot of sense for them,” he says.
Jagoe says that by adding a dialer to Peek devices or even an iPod touch, those devices become fully capable of voice communications.
Will the market see an iPhone app from 3jam anytime soon? Jagoe is optimistic. “We hope that you'll see one in the near future. We’ve talked with Apple, and I think they like what they see, but there's a lot forces at work,” Jagoe says, citing the current Google Voice controversy.
3jam also differs from Google Voice by offering number portability. When asked if carriers have been cooperative in 3jam’s efforts to offer number portability, Jagoe says it can be a complicated process, but adds that he understands why. “We act just like a carrier. They're as cooperative as they can be while still being competitive,” he says.
In the end, the future of a service like 3jam is in white labeling the product and offering it up to a number of different players. “Phone numbers can and should do a lot more than they do right now. There should be a sort of blending of communications between telephony and computer communications,” Jagoe says, adding that he believes carriers are eventually going to have to acknowledge that fact and adopt services like 3jam.
“There are many companies today that could benefit from offering a service like 3jam to their users, including today’s phone companies, Microsoft, Facebook and many more. Using 3jam’s white label offering, Facebook could provide all its users with a Facebook phone number,” Jagoe says.
Enterprise Gets in the Act
It’s not just consumer calling that can benefit from this technology. RingCentral's cloud-based enterprise solution, RingCentral Office, comes in at a dramatically lower price than traditional office phone systems and arguably offers similar functionality to that of hardwired systems. Praful Shah, vice president of strategy for RingCentral, notes that small businesses can now have phone systems that in the past would have been out of their price range.
Traditional enterprise office phone systems can cost thousands of dollars to install and many involve lengthy contracts. RingCentral offers the same service with four unlimited phone lines with local numbers, unlimited virtual extensions and voicemail boxes, an auto-receptionist and dial-by-name directory, integrated Internet fax with a dedicated fax number, unlimited inbound/outbound calling and faxing and additional unlimited lines for $24.99 per month.
"We went to production just last month. We already have 2,000 businesses using RingCentral Office today,” Parful says. “No vendor has ever provided something so easy, so full-service, without gimmicks.”
And as much as that may sound like a pitch, he's right. Cloud-based telephony is by its very nature much cheaper, and it could signal the future of communications.
To say that VoIP services are the only options out there that offer cheap or minute-saving alternatives is an insult to one of the world’s most innovative industries on the planet. Thanks to savvy developers, consumers have at their disposal many different combinations of solutions.
Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) now offers the Gigaset One, a small base station that pairs Bluetooth-enabled cell phones with any cordless phone, allowing those with unlimited minute plans to effectively cut their landline and rely solely on their cell phone.
And then, of course, other straight-up VoIP carriers like Trufone, Vonage and NetZero offer solutions. Even Verizon has its own VoIP offering. Put the Skype app on your iPod touch, pair it with a low-usage Mi-Fi plan from Verizon, and you’ve got yourself a fully mobile poor man’s iPhone that costs just over $40 a month. Just imagine the possibilities when pairing VoIP with ad-hoc Wi-Fi networks like Devicescape or We-Fi.
Granted, some of these solutions are a bit much for the average consumer, but the fact that they’re possible means someone will always be there to refine them and market them, or simply offer them for free.
Orr doesn’t think carriers or OEMs are doing themselves any favors by blocking unique applications and services that offer value to consumers. In fact, Orr says that in light of the recent conversation about competitiveness, the most sensible and productive solution for all involved may be a kind of wireless “beer summit.” Given the current talk-things-over policy at the White House, you never know.