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ALTOM: Business consumer loses when Google, Apple fight

September 24, 2011

The most buzz-worthy consumer high-tech companies in the world are probably Google and Apple, although for obviously different reasons. Historically, Google has focused on Internet applications, and Apple has made its fortune in computer hardware and smartphones. Like two prancing elephants in one circus, however, they inevitably had to collide, and they did. It was over Google Voice and the two companies’ respective phone operating systems. The outcome shows how even complementary companies can trip over each other in today’s high-tech market, and cause problems for the business users who depend on them.

Apple, of course, has the controversial iPhone and its App Store that’s just brimming with downloadable applications for that phone. Google has its search engine, its cloud-based Google Documents, and similar products. But Google has also edged into the phone realm in the past few years, and now its Android smartphone operating system is a serious competitor to Apple’s iPhone. That by itself has annoyed Apple. But then Google came out with a product that caused problems not only for the iPhone itself, but also its phone carrier, AT&T.

It’s called “Google Voice,” although it began life as GrandCentral years ago. GrandCentral let its customers pick one number that could then forward the call to other numbers. “One number to rule them all” as some wags put it. Google bought the company and created its own enhanced version, which is largely the one we know today.

Google Voice has proven to be popular with microbusinesses. You select one number, from whatever area code you want, that will then ring through to any number of other phones you may have. You can pick and choose which of your numbers will receive each of those calling numbers. Business numbers can go to your cell phone, while personal numbers go to your landline. It has voice mail, too, and the now-commonplace ability to transcribe voice mail into text. The latter functionality still has lots of bugs, and probably always will, but it’s a nice stab at bridging voice to text.

This is different from a voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) service like Skype, which makes calls totally through the Internet, or mostly through the Internet before dropping onto the “last mile of copper” to get to a physical phone. Skype and its ilk generally produce choppy phone calls, because the Internet wasn’t designed as a phone network, but they’re cheap or free, which is a big attraction in today’s world of belt-cinched business budgets. Google Voice is, rather, a sophisticated automatic switchboard. You get one Google Voice number and hand it out to everyone you know. You then decide how to redirect those incoming numbers. You can even send them straight to voice mail, just as if you were always on the phone.

Google Voice has recently added its own VOIP service without announcing it as such. It’s still unclear how VOIP will work here, but Google has never shied away from experimentation. Failure doesn’t dismay Google.

Google and Apple have inched ever closer to each other’s turf for some years now. Today they’re direct competitors, and getting more direct by the minute. Both Google’s Android phone operating system and Apple’s iPhone are gaining market share, primarily at the expense of the BlackBerry. Right now, Google is winning the market-share battle, with around 52 percent of phones sold. In an even more aggressive move, Google has purchased Motorola Mobility, a smartphone maker, positioning Google as a potential iPhone-stomper.

Given the brewing rivalry between the companies, it probably didn’t shock many people when the Apple iPhone store first offered, then retracted, its Google Voice apps several months back, making Google Voice all but unusable on iPhones. The thin reason given was that the apps merely duplicated existing functionality in the phone, something that hasn’t stopped multiple apps from being offered in the past. It’s possible, as some observers noted, that AT&T was the principal driver behind the ban, but it’s unlikely that Apple brass was made sleepless by ethical regrets when Google Voice was locked out. Google just shrugged and offered an app for the iPhone that went around the phone system itself and was entirely VOIP. Eventually, either Apple or AT&T relented and Google Voice apps reappeared in the store.

Little detail about the back-room maneuverings has leaked out, but conflicts like this have been uncomfortably commonplace in the high-tech world, where companies still limit competitor access to what should be an open playing field. The real victims, of course, are the businessfolk who have to choose up sides when all they really want is equipment that just makes money. The anguished cries of business users, however, are drowned out in the chatter from casual users who aren’t as handicapped by the corporate sniping. A pox on both their houses, I say.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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