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Google wriggles in open voice and browser debates

Mountain View pushes open source, but only so far

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Google's run-ins with the Apple/AT&T double ac over its Voice application are becoming symbols of the whole broad debates over open web models and net neutrality, and igniting debate over how carriers can survive amidst the rise of open browser-based services and mobile VoIP. Google may be a flag waver for browser usage versus downloadable apps, and for web-based voice. But how open can it really afford to be?

Google has complained to the FCC that its Voice and Latitude products were barred from the Apple App Store, implicitly because they would hurt AT&T's business models.

Now AT&T is hitting back with claims that Google Voice is breaking federal call blocking rules by preventing consumers from calling certain phone numbers – implying that Google was being hypocritical over net neutrality. Google acknowledged it restricts outgoing calls to some phone numbers, including adult chat lines and conference call centers, which charge higher access fees to carriers, in order to keep its costs low.

Both disputes show the huge gulf that exists between the principle that customers should be able to access any legal service over the internet from any device - unrestricted by a carrier or vendor – and the commercial reality of investing in networks and applications, especially wireless ones, and making money from them.

These do not just affect carriers, but also web services providers like Google itself. The firm's real world behavior has often been in stark contrast to its high sounding evangelism of open access ideals, and many ask the question, just how open source is Google really prepared to go? It has been accused of pushing its own apps to the forefront of the Android UI, and keeping key developments secret for too long, springing surprises on the open source programmers at the last minute with internally developed Android updates.

Is Google a hypocrite?

Just like Apple, it has been accused of keeping iron control over its application developer processes for Android, and this exploded in another dispute last week, when Google issued a cease-and-desist order against a developer called Steve Kondik, who offered a free, aftermarket firmware product that bundled proprietary Google apps such as Gmail, Market, Talk and YouTube in a package dubbed CyanogenMod.

Kondik agreed to remove these Google proprietary apps, commenting: “These are not part of the open source project and are only part of 'Google Experience' devices... I'd love for Google to hand over the keys to the kingdom and let us all have it for free, but that's not going to happen. And who can blame them?”

However, though Google was clearly within its legal rights, developers were shocked by its quick resort to legal action, and many claimed this was at odds with the firm's public evangelizing of the importance of mobile open source.

This has given rise to a new group, the Open Android Alliance, which says its goal is to “replace all closed source, proprietary applications in the base Android install with open source applications that can be freely distributed. We don't have anything against the existing closed applications. However, we believe in open platforms and want all users to be able to modify their systems as they see fit.”

Carriers, too, are widely accused of paying lip service to openness, while doing everything they can to keep users tied into their networks. One way is to offer popular devices with subsidies that prove irresistible to consumers, or with an exclusive lock-in (a practise that itself will come under FCC scrutiny soon). Another is to encourage subscribers to access their services via the carrier portal, and use downloadable apps that are specific to the phone or network, rather than an open browser approach as advocated by Google.

This download versus browser debate lies at the heart of the discussions of next generation wireless business models, and Google claims the open argument will be strengthened over time by technologies like HTML 5 and improved mobile browsers, all geared to removing the usability and performance advantages of the downloads. Indeed, as well as recourse to the FCC, Google's other response to the AT&T/Apple challenges has been to develop browser versions of Latitude and Voice.

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