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Google Voice Sneaks Back Onto iPhone

Google Voice Sneaks Back Onto iPhone

Apple wouldn't let Google put its Voice application on the App Store, so Google went ahead and put it on the iPhone's browser. A new version of Google's phone and SMS application is available as a Web app for iPhone and Palm webOS devices. The application faces some limitations by not actually residing on the phone, but from a development perspective, the Web app approach has its advantages.

By Richard Adhikari MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
01/26/10 11:27 AM PT

Google on Tuesday launched a new version of Google Voice for the iPhone, half a year after Apple kicked the application off the iTunes App Store.

However, the latest version of Google Voice is a browser app leveraging HTML 5 and accessible through the iPhone's Safari browser, not an app that's downloadable from the App Store.

It offers several new features, including the ability to send and receive text messages for free.

The App That Almost Wasn't There

The Google Voice mobile Web app works on iPhone OS 3.0 and higher, Google software engineer Michael van Ouwerkerk wrote in the Google Voice blog. It offers a streamlined version of the user's Google Voice inbox.

The Web app also displays the user's Google Voice number as the outbound caller ID number, so return calls come back to that number. It lets users send and receive text messages for free and place international calls at Google Voice's discounted rates.

The app has an AppCache feature that lets users interact with Web apps without a network connection. It lets users store data locally on their device. Users can add shortcuts to their iPhone home screen for quick access to the dialer, inbox and contacts, or to compose SMS messages.

The Google Voice Web app offers native app-like performance and speed, according to Google managers Marcus Foster and David Singleton.

However, having native app-like speed is not the same thing as being a native app, pointed out Josh Martin, a senior analyst at Strategy Analytics. "You won't have access to certain components like the iPhone's address book if you're a browser app," he told MacNewsWorld. "So you have to create a second, replicated phone book in your browser."

On the other hand, a browser-based app has its own benefits. "For example, you're not tied to your device, and you can call people from someone else's phone if you need to," Martin explained.

The Makings of HTML 5

HTML5 is the new version of the Hypertext Markup Language. It aims to reduce the need for proprietary plug-in rich Internet application technologies such as Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight and Sun Java FX.

Google has a built-in advantage in leveraging HTML5 -- Ian Hickson, who's been instrumental in working on HTML 5, now works for Google. Hickson, a member of the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG), which began working on HTML5 in 2004, was editor of the specifications for HTML 5.

Using HTML 5 lets app developers save time and money; Google unveiled Google Voice for both the iPhone and devices running Palm's webOS. "We can build a single app with HTML and JavaScript and have it just work across many mobile operating systems," Alex Nicolaou, an engineering manager at Google, wrote in the Google Mobile blog. "The cost savings are substantial." Having a Web application also lets Google launch products and features as soon as they're ready, Nicolaou wrote.

"This actually seems to deliver on the core premise that Java was created for -- being able to write an app once and run it across multiple platforms," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told MacNewsWorld. "It showcases Google's strength in current technology and Web concepts."

The Winds of Mobile App Change

Google's use of HTML 5 perhaps also signals a change in mobile app development.

"This is the next step in mobile app creation," Julien Blin, principal analyst and CEO of JBB Research, told MacNewsWorld. "Not only do you save money, but you'll be able to push apps through the browser. You can do that now with Google Chrome, and I expect to see the same thing for mobile browsers in the future."

It helps that Google is throwing its weight behind leveraging HTML5 and browser-based mobile apps. "Google is both a leader and one of the major drivers for applications on the Web," Enderle said. "If this Google Voice app is successful, it will likely create a trend."

Using HTML5 might also render app stores' software development kits and their restrictions obsolete. "This app is a nice end-run around the iTunes App Store's restrictions," Enderle said.

Trouble Ahead for AT&T?

While the Google Voice app may be good for iPhone users, it may cause problems for AT&T and any other carrier offering the iPhone. AT&T is currently the sole carrier for the iPhone in the United States, but Apple is widely expected to announce on Wednesday that it's adding another -- possibly Verizon -- to the list.

The trouble could occur with carriers' all-you-can-eat plans. Family Talk plans with unlimited calling start at about US$120, according to AT&T's Web site, although that may have changed recently as many U.S. carriers have modified their talk plans.

AT&T's Family Talk plan gives users unlimited mobile to mobile calls to other AT&T users, unlimited night and weekend minutes for all lines and eliminates roaming and long-distance charges.

"If you make the Google Voice number one of your numbers, you can theoretically call anybody," Strategy Analytics' Martin pointed out. "This puts AT&T on the defensive; if it tries to restrict Google Voice, that makes them the bad guys instead of Apple."


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