Looking at Skype/Google Voice from AT&T’s Point of View

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Apple's created quite a kerfuffle by approving and then pulling third party Google Voice apps from the App Store, and by not approving Google's own iPhone client at all.

A lot of that kerfuffle is along the lines of how dare Apple or AT&T stop me from exercising my [lack of] god(s)-given right to use this technology on my iPhone?!?!? IF I WANT TO USE MY IPHONE TO MAKE "FREE" CALLS THEN YOU'VE GOT SOME NERVE STOPPING ME!!!!!

Being the smartass contrarian that I am, I thought maybe I should speak for the little bad other guy, which is AT&T. At the very least, it's worth a little time examining the issue from another viewpoint, even if there's a bit of the inevitable involved.

So let's start with those evil dillwads that are surely at the heart of this problem, AT&T. At this point, it seems fairly certain that AT&T requested or required Apple to pull these apps. Who are they to do so? Well, they're the folks that paid for most of your iPhone, that's who.

That indignation can usually be counted on to come to the fore, especially with the legions of entitled jack-be-numbnuts who love nothing more than to hear the sound of their own braying.

Without AT&T's heavy subsidies, you're iPhone would be costing you $500 or $600, give or take a few score of dollars. The company has done so not out of the goodness of its blackened, corporate heart, but rather in the pursuit of green, corporate profits. Pay Apple a subsidy up front and reap the reward over the long-haul in the form of higher data fees, expensive SMS plans, and high-end voice plans.

It's a formula that has worked, and one that has served to bring millions of new users to AT&T's wireless network.

And this is where the conflicts and contradictions enter the picture. The iPhone is a small computer, not just a phone. Better still, it's a small, nay (my apologies for that "nay", but I am watching Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog in the background, and Bad Horse's singers were narrating the letter...), a tiny computer with a somewhat open development platform that lets us do whatever we want with it (as long as Apple approves, of course).

When we are denied that, we get indignant. That indignation can usually be counted on to come to the fore, especially with the legions of entitled jack-be-numbnuts who love nothing more than to hear the sound of their own braying.

The iPhone also brings together a special confluence of interested parties that makes for extra-fertile ground for crops of controversy.

You have Apple as a hardware maker, Apple as the App Store provider and gate-keeper, AT&T as a wireless carrier who is also in the role of tiny-portable computer Internet-enabler, and us, the merry band of iPhone users wishing to gallivant from here to 1 Infinite Loop at our convenience.

Clearly we, the user, have a desire to make "free phone calls" with Skype or Google Voice. After all, we're paying for the bandwidth! Clearly Apple as a hardware maker couldn't care less if we do so. Heck, will it get you to buy an iPhone? Then go for it, dude!

Apple as the App Store provider and gatekeeper doesn't care, either, especially if you find a third party client that costs you money (and therefore makes Apple 30%). Apple as the gatekeeper, though, has to worry about its partner companies, specially AT&T, and thus the apps get pulled.

Which brings us to AT&T: This interested party has a specific interest in keeping us from using our bandwidth to make "free phone calls." Yes, we're paying for the bandwidth, but if you think it's that simple, you're a lackwit.

AT&T is already working hard to keep up with the data bandwidth used by iPhone users, and the cost of the networks is paid for not just by bandwidth fees, but by the voice plans that go along with them. If every iPhone user were to switch to Google Voice or Skype on the iPhone to make their phone calls, the iPhone would cease to be a profit center for the company.

Nothing is really free, after all, and if the current rate structures made it impossible for AT&T to make a profit on the iPhone, those rate structures or the subsidy system would have to change. In a world where every iPhone call is made through Google Voice or Skype, we're looking at surcharges for data, more expensive data plans, or some other form of fee system.

Of course, some secondhanders will argue that not everyone will use Google Voice or Skype, and that therefore they should be allowed to do so. All that really just means they're looking for a free ride -- as long as someone else is paying for their "free phone calls," they're happy.

My belabored point is that someone has to pay for the bandwidth used by these phone calls.

So what's AT&T supposed to do? Blithely watch while costs go up and profits evaporate? In addition to its lack of logic, it would result in a shareholder lawsuit faster than you could say "class action."

What's Apple supposed to do? Watch their awesome product become such a drain on its partner carriers that no one wants to pay Apple a subsidy any more?

From my perspective, any supposed controversy over this issue is as false as the indignation of supposed Mac fans who want to run Mac OS X on their home-built PCs, even though the development costs of Mac OS X are heavily subsidized by the cost of Apple hardware.

Yeah, that's right, I'm throwing a tangential dig at Psystar into a column about AT&T.

In any event, the only way that voice-over-IP makes sense for the iPhone is in a market with unsubsidized phones with users who are paying heavily for data bandwidth, and by heavily, I mean even more heavily than the already hefty data fees AT&T is extracting from us.

That said, an argument can be made that voice-over-IP should be allowable on WiFi connections only. That's a different situation with different parameters, the most important being you aren't using AT&T's bandwidth to make the call, so they shouldn't have much of a say in it.

The BlackBerry will do that out of the box, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs had originally said his company would allow such uses. Even more interestingly, as of this writing, Skype is still available on the App Store.

What's that about? I don't know, but if this is an AT&T thing going on with Google Voice, I'd be worried over at Ebay's Skype offices.

Lastly, of course, there's always the chance that this whole issue isn't about Apple being forced to protect AT&T, but is rather indicative of a policy shift at Apple pitting the iPhone maker against Google. It is possible that Apple is concerned about keeping control of the dialing experience, or who knows what else.

If that ends up being the case, please disregard the previous 1,123 words.

Comments

Montresor

Umm…speaking of lackwits - you *are* aware that Google Voice does not currently allow for voice-over-ip, right? And that any phone calls made or received with Google Voice still use your AT&T minutes? So there is no way to make a “free phone call” with Google Voice.

*Poof* There! I’ve just made the central thesis of your column disappear!

And please don’t try to walk this back by saying something like “Google Voice will *eventually* offer voice over ip”, as that would be pure speculation on your part and would then create a second voip offering from Google (see Google Talk).

What Google Voice does do that scares the crap out of AT&T is two things: provide free SMS, which destroys the rape-at-will pricing model that wireless carriers have developed for text messaging; and make number portability trivially easy, obviating one of the primary customer lock-in mechanisms. Yeah, I know you are legally able to transfer numbers now, but it’s still a hassle. Google Voice removes all friction from this system.

Montresor

BTW - good job with The Atomic Love Bombs. Reminds me of early REM, which I loved.

Brian

@Montresor.  He obviously is not aware that Google Voice doesn’t allow for VoIP calls.  And obviously, neither is AT&T. 

The one legitimate issue AT&T should have with Google Voice is it’s ability to SMS.  Though normally you end up configuring GV to forward to SMS message to your cell phone, so AT&T still gets in on the fun.  But, you don’t have to set it up that way, in which case AT&T does miss out. 

The whole thing is just silly really.  I’m just hoping Google redoes the mobile GV website and I’ll just use that.

Brian

The irony of this whole situation was I was trying to get Google Voice so that I can drop my phone phone line and use just our AT&T phones exclusively (but ring both my wife and I at the same time).  With that in place, I was going to drop the home phone and up our cell phone plan.  I guess I won’t be doing that now….

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

I don’t get how a 3G radio adds $400 to the cost of the phone, Bryan. Apple isn’t getting a subsidy on iPod Touch.

Bryan Chaffin

I can NOT tell you folks how funny I think it is that I screwed this one up so badly! There is nothing like being all smug and smarmy about a topic, while being so wrong about the central premise!

So, thanks to everyone for setting me straight (and thanks for the comment about The Atomic Love Bombs, Montressor!!). 

With the cat out of the bag, the horses out of the gate, the milk spreading over the table, and the water well past the bridge, I am just going to let this piece stand as a testament for the need to get one more pair of eyes on a piece before it goes up. smile

Montresor

Happens to all of us who write. I once wrote a piece for Publish under a deadline about how bad Dreamweaver 1.0 sucked compared to GoLive, only to have one of the developers send me a (nicely written) email pointing out that I’d missed a tab and preference option that directly addressed almost all my issues.

tpaulding

Did GV Mobile use minutes or just data? I know that it didn’t work with WiFi but what part of my plan would it hit? I thought it used the data connection which means the GV calls would have been unlimited as a part of my iPhone data package. I’m not claiming that is true, I’m asking.

daemon

Google Voice uses minutes when used with a cell phone.

John Wong

Well, I live in Canada where we also have the iPhone yet because of AT&T, we are limited on what we can do on the iPhone even though we aren’t using AT&T’s network so AT&T didn’t subsidize my phone. I actually paid “full price” for my phone which is one of the options available in Canada.

It is the same thing with the SlingPlayer and iPhone with AT&T. AT&T didn’t want the SlingPlayer to be used on their network so all iPhone users around the world are limited to using it over WiFi unless they jailbreak their iPhones. I use SlingPlayer on my laptop over my carrier’s 3G network but I can’t use it on the iPhone because AT&T told Apple they didn’t want it yet AT&T has absolutely nothing to do with my carrier.

Cort

While the people commenting may be right that gv doesn’t allow Voip they are wrong that you can’t make “free” calls with the software. What google voice does support is calls made through your voicemail number with them. That means you call your voicemail and then dial the number you really want to call. With ATT’s pick 5 plan you can add your voicemail phone number as one of your 5 and make/receive all of your calls through that. This would allow you to be on your phone thousands of minutes and not pay for anymore then ATT’s most basic plan. Its also exactly what the Google voice app does on cell phones. That being said you can still do it without using the program, it just requires a little more dialing on your part because its not automated.

Basically, yes your correct the person that wrote this was a little misinformed on the Voip thing. However he hit the nail on the head with why ATT doesn’t like it and thats because you can make “free” phone calls with the service.

daemon

What google voice does support is calls made through your voicemail number with them. That means you call your voicemail and then dial the number you really want to call. With ATT?s pick 5 plan you can add your voicemail phone number as one of your 5 and make/receive all of your calls through that.

First, you don’t seem to be aware of the fact that AT&T doesn’t have a “pick 5 plan” where you can pick any 5 numbers and have unlimited minutes calling to those numbers.

Second, even if they did have a pick 5 plan, you would not be dialing out to your Google phone number. You would be dialing out to a unified Google calling number, that is very similar to calling card numbers. Second, any in-coming calls use have their originating numbers used as their caller id by default, you can change it to always show your google voice number. So, to take advantage of this “free” calling plan (keep in mind, you’re still paying for the service to call any 5 numbers you want unlimited) you will at the very least need to use 2 of your 5 slots, and one of them will be a static known Google calling number. A number easy for a carrier to black list from the plan.

Brian

Interesting column and perspective with some interesting feedback, some of which makes me wonder if they even have GV Mobile or have even tried it.  For example, you can disable 3G/Edge and place/receive calls over WiFi just fine - so explain how that scenario uses ATT Voice minutes - it’s the Data plan.  Also, how about using a SIP provider that will forward your GV #, and then run a SIP client on your iPhone - now you’re talking low-cost or essentially “free” voice.

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