While Apple’s handling of the Google Voice app for the iPhone prompted a federal review and continues to court controversy, a similar Internet phone app by Vonage got the green light and is available today.
The free application, Vonage Mobile, is available now for Research In Motion’s (NASDAQ: RIMM) BlackBerry devices and Apple’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPhones and iPod Touches. The app is designed to allows users to place low-cost international calls over Wi-Fi and cellular voice networks.
A flat-rate plan will be out by the end of the year, according to Vonage, which also said callers can retain their own mobile phone number while using the service.
Vonage Mobile for the iPhone makes calls over Wi-Fi when in range of a hotspot, but it can also route calls over the voice network, according to the company.
The Vonage app for BlackBerrys works only over the voice network while the iPod Touch version works over Wi-Fi.
“When developing Vonage Mobile, we focused on creating a more convenient alternative for customers who use calling cards or Wi-Fi-only applications,” said Mike Tempora, senior vice president of product management for Vonage, in a statement. “Vonage Mobile is easy to get and use, and gives customers the best possible calling experience from a trusted provider.”
News of Vonage Mobile comes at a time when Apple’s decision to keep the Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) Voice mobile app out of its App Store continues to spark controversy after an investigation by the FCC.
When Apple failed to approve Google Voice for the iPhone, it prompted an FCC inquiry into the issue in which Google, Apple and AT&T all filed explanations of their respective roles in the matter. AT&T (NYSE: T) is the sole carrier for the iPhone.
Google Voice, which is available for BlackBerrys and Android-powered phones, also uses VoIP technology to let users make free domestic calls and low-cost international calls, as well as send free text messages.
In their respective regulatory filings, Apple and Google’s interpretation of the status of Google Voice is contradictory. The Internet giant said Google Voice was rejected outright, while Apple said is still being reviewed.
“Contrary to published reports, Apple has not rejected the Google Voice application, and continues to study it,” the company said in its filing. “The application has not been approved because, as submitted for review, it appears to alter the iPhone’s distinctive user experience by replacing the iPhone’s core mobile telephone functionality and Apple user interface with its own user interface for telephone calls, text messaging and voicemail,” says Apple’s response to the FCC.
Apple also said that it had agreed to consult with AT&T before approving applications that allow VoIP calls over AT&T’s network, bypassing its voice network, though it took sole responsibility for the decision on Google Voice.
The Google Voice Mobile iPhone app flap is not the first time that Apple has come under scrutiny over its handling of an app involving VoIP technology.
Earlier this year, Apple allowed VoIP application Skype into the App Store only after it agreed to limit its service to iPhone users on Wi-Fi connections — not when the device was connected via 3G. The move meant that on-the-go users still have to pay AT&T for voice communications.
Google’s Voice application does not work over Wi-Fi. Instead, the application dials a special Google phone number using the standard voice network, and then Google routes the call to its destination.
Meanwhile, though Google Voice for the iPhone has yet to be sanctioned by Apple, Palm (NASDAQ: PALM) and its exclusive carrier Sprint have embraced the Internet phone program by approving a free third-party version for Palm smartphones.
Palm recently approved gDial Pro, a third-party version of the app, for its mobile application store by drawing parallels between Google Voice and its own smartphone software.
“One of the most powerful aspects of webOS is Palm Synergy, which brings together your online accounts in one simple, logical view, and keeps them synced up automatically. Google Voice applies a similar philosophy to your phone number and phone services, offering you a range of options for everything from forwarding calls among your phones to transcribing voicemail messages into text. With gDial Pro, a webOS app from Mobile Entertainment Group, your Palm Pre can now use and manage your Google Voice account, ” wrote Jon Zilber, Palm’s online communications director, at the Palm blog.
Palm’s approach may be more in line with recent data suggesting that mobile VoIp is an emerging trend that’s only going to gain momentum.
Mobile VoIP is moving beyond its initial function as a way to conduct inexpensive international calls, reports In-Stat analyst Frank Dickson in “Mobile VoIP-Transforming the Future of Wireless Voice.” In-Stat projects that by 2013 Mobile VoIP applications will generate annual revenues of $32.2 billion, driven by over 278 million registered users worldwide.
While Mobile VoIP still poses a direct threat to operator voice revenue, it also represents a dynamic new capability that promises numerous applications, according to Dickson.
He says one new application integrates Mobile VoIP into a unified mobile interface to social networking sites. In another new development, MVNOs and 3G operators without legacy networks are using Mobile VoIP to more cost effectively add voice to data offerings. In yet another scenario, a few carriers are using a form of mobile VoIP, UMA, to support better indoor coverage and off-load macro networks.
“Applications such as Skype and Vonage have influenced users to think of voice as a data application,” Dickson, In-Stat analyst, said in a statement. “The increasing penetration of Wi-Fi in mobile devices was the beach head that Mobile VoIP applications needed. As user habits are being shaped by rich on-line communication experiences, mobile carriers’ control over devices and data applications is waning. Mobile carrier attempts to slow the spread of on-line Mobile VoIP are proving challenging as well.”
Apple representatives had not returned calls seeking comment by press time.