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Apple Shows Google The Web Hasn't Won

The Web may be the platform of the future, but at the moment, Web development technology doesn't provide Google with a way around Apple's ban on its Google Voice app.

Apple's refusal to allow the Google Voice application for iPhones to be sold in its App Store has elicited raucous criticism and prompted peevish Internet users to disparage Apple as "evil," a term more often associated with Google.

Forbes writer Brian Caulfield has come to Apple's defense, insisting that Apple isn't evil for defending the considerable iPhone-related revenue it receives from AT&T. It's a fair argument, though one that doesn't consider whether AT&T generates that revenue through unreasonable pricing, as some have suggested.

Whether Apple will suffer any lasting damage from the incident remains to be seen. Few iPhone owners use Google Voice, so most don't know what they're missing. And online scolds aren't likely to derail company's momentum or diminish its popularity among its devoted fans. At most, the incident it likely to encourage a few iPhone users to switch to Android.

But Apple's rejection of the Google Voice app may be enough to bring the company to the attention of government regulators. Although spokespeople for the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Department of Justice all declined to comment on whether Apple's actions might merit regulatory scrutiny, Fred Von Lohmann, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, believes that Apple will have to confront questions about anti-competitive behavior.

"The Google Voice events this week underscore the fact that if you're worried about competition, you're worried about Apple," he said, noting that the incident shows why the EFF asked the Copyright Office to sanction the jailbreaking of iPhones.

Von Lohmann doesn't believe any government action is imminent. But the fuss made over Apple's ban probably means that regulators have noticed, he said.

(Update: On Friday afternoon, The Wall Street Journal reported that the FCC had initiated in inquiry into why Apple and AT&T banned Google Voice.)

Google meanwhile is pursuing a technical solution. But at present, it doesn't look like an iPhone Web app can match a native one, at least for Google Voice.

Some of the functions of the Google Voice app, like accessing voicemail recordings and transcripts or sending SMS messages via the Google Voice site, can be provided using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. But other functions, like placing calls using a Google Voice number rather than a mobile phone number, require access to phone hardware. Current browser technology doesn't allow Web developers to make use of mobile device hardware.

Google declined to comment on whether it could create a Web app that matched the functionality of its banned Google Voice native iPhone app.

Mozilla's director of Firefox, Mike Beltzner, doesn't see a way to do it at the moment. "Presently there are various proposals for Web standards around accessing cameras, phones, SMS systems, built-in address books and other mobile-platform features, but none are near completion at this time, so there's no HTML or other standardized ways for Web developers to access phone-specific hardware through a Web page."

Mozilla would very much like to see Fennec, the mobile version of Firefox, on Apple's iPhone. But the terms of Apple's iPhone SDK forbid that from happening. In an online post to a Mozilla mobile platforms discussion group, Beltzner explained, "At this time Fennec cannot be produced for the iPhone due to limitations in the iPhone SDK which prohibit applications from executing / interpreting code -- this would basically mean that we can't ship a browser that runs JavaScript."

Jason Grigsby, a VP at mobile Web application developer Cloud Four, confirmed that Web development technology can't yet match the capabilities of the Google Voice app. "Replicating what they are doing with outgoing calls would not be possible with HTML 5," he said. "There's no standard for access to the microphone."

Among the various groups working to hammer out standards for access to mobile hardware, Grigsby singles out Palm and its webOS. He says that Palm SVP Michael Abbott told him that some of what Palm was trying to do with Web technology "was so far ahead of where others were that we had to make stuff up."

Grigsby said he isn't sure if or when Palm's work will make it to the various Web standards bodies because Palm's main concern has simply been getting its Pre out the door.

Nonetheless, Grigsby continues to believe that Web apps for mobile devices will thrive alongside native apps.

Once the rules for interacting with mobile phone hardware emerge, the question becomes whether Apple will implement them in the mobile version of Safari.

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