For Apple and Google, it's a Battle of the Address Books

tags: apps, code, network

We use Macs at my house because Mobile Me keeps the family address book in sync.

So yesterday, when Apple answered the FCC’s questions about rejecting the Google Voice app for the iPhone, this paragraph caught my eye:

The iPhone user’s entire Contacts database is transferred to Google’s servers, and we have yet to obtain any assurances from Google that this data will only be used in appropriate ways. These factors present several new issues and questions to us that we are still pondering at this time.

– via

Michael Arrington at Techcrunch claims this is patently false, and that the Google Voice app simply reads phone numbers from the iPhone’s address book, in the approved Apple way. Either way, Apple’s rejection of the GV app only gives Google an advantage.

What’s the value proposition of Google Voice? For me, GV has three big ones:

  • A single, free phone number for life
  • Voicemail messages by email and SMS
  • Transcription of voice mail to text

All of these are accessible from the web or – via Safari or an app – from the iPhone. None of these, except maybe free SMS, increases AT&T’s costs or decreases its revenue. Google Voice is not a voice over IP. Rather, it’s a switchboard. From the web or an app, you tell Google who you’d like to call, and from what phone. Google then calls you and the person you want to talk to, and connects the two of you. So you use just as many cellphone minutes as you otherwise would have, and AT&T probably does not care.

Coincidentally or not, Google Voice also presents Google’s best chance of getting a user’s address book data. Why does Google care about this? Because the address book – uploaded to Google Contacts, combined with your Gmail history – is Google’s social network. So why on earth would Apple, home of Mobile Me, act to give this data to Google?

The Apple Ponders the Address Book

Who knows why Apple rejected an app like this?

  • Maybe Apple is concerned that Google Contacts will undercut one of the primary reasons to subscribe to Apple’s MobileMe service – address book sync across multiple Macs 
  • Maybe Apple has plans for its own telephony service, perhaps tied to iChat
  • Maybe, as Arrington surmises, it’s an inferiority complex, with Apple seeing YouTube, Google Maps, Search and now Voice adding up to too much control of iPhone content

From my perspective as an iPhone and Google Voice user, the Google Voice iPhone app was Apple’s last chance to keep the address book out of Google’s hands.

Think about it: Google Voice the web application still provides tremendous value. On the web, I must upload my address book to Google’s servers to unlock that value. That’s the only way to really use the GV from the web, short of typing any phone number I care to call.

And what is Google doing with that address book? Recent work on Google Reader has shown, Google is using Contacts as the cornerstone of a Google social network. So by rejecting the Google Voice application, Apple helps Google compete against the giant of social networking, Facebook. Can anybody explain to me why this is in Apple’s interest?

If Apple does become “just another hardware vendor” it will be Apple’s own fault, as Apple’s “pondering” – or its inner control freak – will have trumped innovation. 

We would all be the poorer for that. Come on, Apple, we’re rooting for you. Get with the network.