Google wriggles in open voice and browser debates
Mountain View pushes open source, but only so far
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.
Kineto offers voice bridge
Some firms want to bridge the gulf between carriers and open web players, rather than encouraging the stand-off. The large wireless vendors are playing 'carrier's friend' with services and platforms to help operators create desirable web-based applications that even open access consumers will choose. These tap into the competitive advantages inherent in their networks, such as their billing capabilities and network-based functions like contact books, presence and location awareness.
Alcatel-Lucent, with its application enablement and Telco 2.0 programs, and Ericsson, with its hosted apps initiative, are at the forefront of this trend.
Smaller companies also want to get on the cellcos' side, one of them being Kineto, best known for its contribution to dual-mode 3G/Wi-Fi platforms, via the Unlicensed Mobile Access technology, and now to VoLGA, one approach to solving the problem of supporting legacy voice on LTE. Now Kineto is looking at voice from another angle, creating a mobile VoIP app specifically designed to be resold by a carrier.
The app runs on the cellco's existing infrastructure and can work with iPhone, Android, Symbian and Windows Mobile devices. Currently in trials with several operators, it can be rebranded by the carrier as a competitor to third party mobile VoIP offerings like Skype, Google Voice and Truphone. In other words, if cellcos can't keep these products off their networks, they can try to offer something even more attractive of their own to keep customers loyal.
Third party VoIP's threat to the cellco model, where voice remains the key competitive edge, is greater than that of net neutrality, says ratings agency Fitch in its latest biannual report on the North American wireless industry. It says web-based voice and text will have "uncertain and wide ranging" implications for operators, eroding ARPU and subscriber loyalty.
As operators try to keep VoIP off their systems for as long as possible, Skype's CEO, Josh Silverman, claims its iPhone app has now been downloaded about four million times. But it can still only use Wi-Fi, as AT&T continues to demur on allowing it to run over 3G. “The usage on iPhone is pretty good, but it is still handcuffed,” Silverman told Gigaom  last week, and believes that usage would rise if 3G were enabled. “Most people want to use Skype over the wide area networks,” he went on. “We want the telcos to get out of the way.”
Palm steps up open browser credentials
One of Google's less likely supporters in the browser versus apps war is now Palm, since the launch of the Linux-based webOS. Palm may not have gone as far as to back Android, but its positioning against arch-rival Apple is all about the browser. This was highlighted when two leading web-based programming advocates left open source browser group Mozilla for Palm recently, arguing the phone maker's systems will be a strong platform for their broader ambitions – to weaken closed mobile environments like Apple's and promote the open browser-based model.
The move by Dion Almaer and Ben Galbraith to Palm, where they will be directors of the developer relations team, raises hopes that the open mobile web push is becoming less dependent on Google, which bodes well for continuing innovation and competition. The two friends and developers have gained prominence for their work running the Ajaxian site for complex web inter-faces, and working on Mozilla's web-based Bespin tool for collaborative programming. WebOS is one of the most browser-based of mobile software environments, prefiguring many of the concepts that Google hopes to introduce to the PC and mobile worlds in future, not with Android, but with Chrome OS.
The foundation for Palm Pre Apps is a WebKit-based browser, so its apps are basically web services. Almaer wants to accelerate and highlight this process and wrote on his blog: “We will have the responsibility of the developer experience with Palm. We will be trying to create a rich connective tissue between the company and the web developer community that we love.”
In particular, people like this need to work to make web programs as fast, richly functional and efficient as native programs. So far, they fall down on all three counts, especially on smartphones, but they are making rapid progress, as witnessed by the rise of techniques like Ajax and the opening up of important players like Adobe.
Galbraith also sees the work of Palm and others as an antidote to the way that some vendors used the mobile web explosion to seize power and control. “My enthusiasm for this amazing new world is tempered by some unfortunate decisions made by some of the players in this space,” he wrote. “It seems that some view this revolution as a chance to seize power in downright Orwellian ways by constraining what we, as developers, can say, dictating what kinds of apps we can create, controlling how we distribute our apps, and placing all kinds of limits on what we can do to our computing devices." No prizes for guessing which phone/store giant he was referring to.
Also at Palm, webOS 1.2 was released this week, adding new features to the Pre and forthcoming Pixie, but apparently ending the feud with Apple over access to iTunes. This feature has been turned off and on in a cat-and-mouse fight with the iPhone maker, but did not reappear in the new webOS version.
The upgrade does offer integration with LinkedIn contacts and easier links to instant messaging friends, plus cut-and-paste for web pages and emails, in-browser file download, downloads from the Amazon MP3 store, and filtering of emails via search. Perhaps most importantly, webOS adds billing features that will allow premium applications to be supported in the the Palm App Catalog storefront.
Copyright © 2009, Wireless Watch 
Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here .