Whose iPhone is It Anyway?

By  |  Friday, August 21, 2009 at 6:05 pm

tugofwarThe great silence is over. Apple has responded to the FCC’s questions about the Google Voice app in particular and the iPhone App Store in general–and it not only sent its answers to the feds, but published them on the Web. It’s the first time the company has talked about App Store procedures and processes in public. And Engadget has posted the letters Google and AT&T sent to the FCC. All of a sudden, we know way more about what’s been going on behind the scenes.

Some of the tidbits in the three letters reconfirm stuff that was already known, such as Sling’s SlingPlayer being crippled because of concerns over network congestion in general and violation of AT&T’s terms of service in specific. Others make the obvious official, such as AT&T’s statement that it does not like the idea of VoIP services such as Skype running over its 3G network. Apple’s statement emphasizes the good news about App Store approval–95% of apps get the okay within two weeks–and stresses that most rejections are because of bugs. It also says that the App Store gets 8500 new apps and updates a week, that there are more than 40 full-time reviewers, and that every app is checked by two reviewers. Assuming that the average reviewer puts in a ten hour workday (not including lunch) that would mean that he or she must crank through around eight apps an hour–which means that the average inspection must be profoundly superficial, and that most must involve snap judgements that may be prone to error. (We kind of knew that already.)

The meat of the three letters involves Google Voice–the app whose failure to get approval spurred the FCC to take action, and almost certainly the most significant app to run into trouble to date, because its appeal is so broad and it looks so impressive on the platforms it’s already on. (Sorry, Hottest Girls fans–I won’t defend to my death your right to peek at softcore porn on your iPhone.)

Quick executive summary of what the three letters have to say about Google Voice:

–Apple’s letter says that it hasn’t rejected Google Voice but is instead “still pondering” the implications of Google Voice’s use of its own interface for phone-related tasks rather than “the iPhone’s distinctive user experience.” It also says it’s concerned about the fact that Google Voice uploads all of a user’s iPhone contacts to a Google server.

–Apple says that it made the decision not to approve Google Voice in a prompt fashion on its own, without consulting with AT&T or taking formal or informal agreements with the carrier into consideration.

–Apple says that it pulled the three independent Google Voice utilities that had been approved for similar reasons, under similar circumstances.

–AT&T agrees that it played no role in the app’s rejection, points out that its agreements with Apple date from before there were third-party iPhone apps at all, and pretty much denies knowing much of anything at all about Google Voice.

–The one most interesting thing in Google’s letter–the answer to the FCC’s request that Google tell it the explanation that Apple gave for banning Google Voice (and the app version of Google Latitude) is…redacted. It’s like an eighteen-and-a-half minute gap in an otherwise fascinating and relatively forthright set of documents.

The most significant nugget of information in all this is Apple’s stance that its reservations about Google Voice largely relate to the fact that it tampers with the experience that Apple designed for making and managing phone calls. This is presumably a variation on the explanation the company’s sometimes given that rejected apps “duplicated” iPhone functionality. And Apple is so obsessive about user interfaces and its control thereof that I take it at its word that this is why it hasn’t approved Google Voice. (If Microsoft said it objected to a third-party app on the grounds of interface consistency, it would be a different matter…)

But the fact that I think Apple is sincere in its actions rather than conspiratorial and conniving doesn’t mean I have to like them. iPhone owners are presumably at least as smart as their pals who own BlackBerries and Android phones, and I haven’t heard any reports of mass confusion among owners of those handsets since Google released Google Voice for them. We can deal with different ways of doing things, especially when there are clear benefits such as the ones Google Voice offers. We might even prefer someone else’s approach to Apple’s way of doing things.

Apple’s refusal to approve apps that it maintains duplicate core iPhone apps or alter the phone’s experience is discouraging when it means that iPhone owners don’t get something as demonstrably useful as Google Voice. (It’s also confusing given that Apple never seems to lay down the law consistently–doesn’t Skype also provide an alternative to the standard iPhone calling experience?) But its the long-term impact on the iPhone platform that’s most worrisome. We need an iPhone that benefits from brains outside of Apple. We need one that can be different phones to different people. We need one where the big question about any new app is “Will this appeal to a meaningful number of iPhone owners?” rather than “Does this appeal to Apple?”

Or in other words: I want my iPhone to be…my iPhone. Even if my take on pleasing user interfaces and important functionality differs from Apple’s.

I continue to be an optimist who thinks that Apple will decide that it’s in its own best interest to err on the side of approving useful apps, not rejecting them or sending them into limbo–and maybe even permitting third-party distribution of apps, including ones it can’t stand. I just hope that the company comes to that conclusion sooner rather than later. Approving Google Voice would be a terrific start.

Oh, and one other note: Apple’s letter to the FCC says that Google is free to build a Safari-based Google Voice Web application for the iPhone, as Google is reportedly doing. Doesn’t that mean that Apple’s original stance that iPhone Web apps were just as good as native apps was kinda patently silly all along?


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11 Comments For This Post

  1. bonsai Says:

    You would your iPhone to be your iPhone, but I would like my iPhone to be without your influence.

    The choice you got is vast just pick your phone and personally I wish you the best of luck, but I am glad that Apple are not using focus groups to make a phone is the best compromise.

    As you already agree you like the iPhone, you probably silently agree with me, and while I am sure you are also ‘sincere’ in your actions, however, I trust Apple more than you, to be honest.

  2. HereAndNow Says:

    Great article title…and question: “Whose iPhone is It Anyway?”.

    This should be the question that the FCC ponders. It seems that service providers have decided that it is theirs.

  3. Technology Slice Says:

    Apple seems to be making excuses.

  4. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    I’m so tired of people picking on the iPhone. The thing makes 91% of its users give it the highest satisfaction rating, a 10 out of 10. People from all walks of life, not just computer scientists. The next phone down is the Blackberry, which is in the 50’s. In mid-2007 when iPhone launched, a $99 smartphone was a Motorola Q. Go look at it in Google and compare to today’s $99 smartphone, which is an iPhone 3G with the same monthly bill. Every way that the iPhone 3G is better than the Q, and there are thousands of ways, is totally free. There are people replacing their Q’s with iPhone 3G’s right now. They are not only going to be more productive, they are going to have better coronary health and lower incidence of stress-related injury.

    There are many competitors to iPhone. There is a famous clone of the iPhone made by ex-Apple employees for you if you don’t like iPhone. Blackberry and Windows Mobile have 10 year histories. People can choose from many different phones. Why the complaining?

    What’s worse is that the complaints about the App Store have the same flavor as when people demand Mac OS X for generic PC’s: Apple is supposed to behave by being just like everybody else. They’re supposed to do things more like Windows and Android but somehow magically avoid the car crash results. They’re supposed to change for vaguely articulated political reasons, for market reasons, for anti-trust reasons. They’re supposed to embrace artificially split hardware and software because that worked for DOS briefly. And most of all, they’re supposed to remove the user from the top of the hierarchy and put the developer there, as dog intended.


    The iPhone has 2 API’s: CocoaTouch (App Store), and HTML 5 (World Wide Web apps). They are the yin and yang of software development. Between the 2 you have the whole world as your oyster because they’re opposite approaches:

    * CocoaTouch is private, commercial, requires testing and approval and code signing, is tightly editorialized and controlled by Apple, your apps live on Apple’s servers, and App Store is unique to the iPhone, proprietary to Apple. Apple is going to act like they’re the only user of your app because they are. If you develop for App Store, you’re developing for Apple. It’s like if you score a Spielberg movie, what music you hear in the final cut is going to be up to Spielberg. You are not part of a movie, you are part of a Spielberg movie. His audience pays him to take that editorial position. Same with Apple.

    * HTML 5 is public, as non-commercial as you want, open, decentralized, no editorial but your own, your software is on your server, you do what you please, totally arbitrary code, on the server side you can use Ruby or Python or whatever you want, in the client you have offline operation and sophisticated interactivity and data access. And the Web is bigger than Apple and iPhone: HTML 5 runs everywhere except in Microsoft’s creaky old tech (which is disappearing lately like glaciers). Right now HTML 5 is on 35% of desktops and 90% of mobiles and growing extremely fast. And also appearing on devices where HTML 4 never tread. What you can do on iPhone with a Web app is better than what you can do natively on other mobiles. For example, the iPhone Web browser has 3D hardware-accelerated transforms which you don’t even have in a native Blackberry app. There is even a way to give your Web app an iPhone icon and it is easy for the user to put that icon on their iPhone home screen with no Apple involvement. If you develop for the Web, you’re developing for everyone, including yourself. If you have complaints about CocoaTouch and App Store, don’t hesitate, just dive into HTML 5.

    So Apple is providing developers with 2 places to run their apps. And Apple is paying thousands of developers right now for the software they developed for App Store. The total will cross one billion dollars soon. The complaining should be for other platforms. Where is the straightforward way to port existing Windows code to Windows Mobile? Where is Windows Mobile’s Unix core and HTML 5 browser? Where is the Android quality? Where is the native (runs on the kernel) SDK for Pre? Why do the very best Blackberry apps have less sophistication than yesterday’s Web apps? Why is Nokia not on Unix yet? Why does Sony make about 20 handheld devices but no smartphone? Who does Verizon think they are kidding with their app store?

    We are surrounded by a sea of disgraceful mediocrity in tech right now. Software development in general is in an epic slump outside of Apple and very few other places. Apple is not perfect, but they are at the very bottom of my list of offenders because they’re making stuff that works, that sells, and that remains popular with users post-sale. Apple is making an honest buck in an industry that still depends way too much on blinding people with science and BS. Shrunken netbook keyboards you can’t touch type on? Check. Day’s worth of I-T to upgrade NT 5.1 to 6.1? Check. Zune 2009 with Internet Explorer 6? Check. $699 HP business laptop for a Laptop Hunter who describes themselves as a “filmmaker”? Oh yes. Sure.

    And Apple is driving technology forward as well. Even if you use no Apple products, you’re likely to benefit from their open source projects like WebKit (fast HTML 5 browser core for x32, x64, ARM, and PowerPC) and Bonjour (zero configuration networking.) You’re likely to benefit from Apple innovations that spread throughout the industry. For example, if you’re using a notebook right now, I bet it has the keyboard up against the screen to make room for palm rests and a pointing device in the center, like the original PowerBook.

    So exactly what percentage of the Web should be complaining about Apple? And shouldn’t we demand a little more meat on the bone each time? The iPhone can’t multitask? That is ridiculous. Have you watched an iPhone monkey at work? Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap 5000 times every single day. On an iPhone, the user is running EVERY app all at once. That requires the kernel to be a true miser with the resources, it literally cannot let you stand around here before or after your appointment. All of the apps are running all the time. That means most of them have to be sleeping at any one moment. It’s not a lack of multitasking; it’s meta-multitasking. The fact that there is only one 3rd party app getting system resources at a time enables the USER to multitask: they can use their phone all day and utilize dozens or even hundreds of apps and their phone never stalls, their music never skips, and they can always, always call up the Phone dialer or any other app they need, the phone is always responsive. Watch the users on other platforms, they simply do not use as many apps. That is why they have less demand for apps and less apps also.

    And the knock on AT&T “exclusivity” is another tired troll that is part of this summer of Apple bashing. When you consider that Verizon requires handset makers to custom design handsets just for them with proprietary Verizon hardware in them, requiring customers to buy handsets from Verizon only, and which cannot physically attach to other phone networks not ever, not even after their Verizon contract expires, it is completely ludicrous to make any kind of negative remark about AT&T exclusivity. I know US iPhone users who have traveled to dozens of countries with their iPhone, including China where iPhone is not even available for purchase. I know US iPhone users who are on T-Mobile. I know Canadian iPhone users. Verizon is not even a part of the global phone network! It is ridiculous to paint them as any kind of white hat or Robin Hood, it is just ludicrous. It shows you the person doing the complaining does not know what they are talking about. And from the other angle, Palm Pre is only on Sprint, not just because Sprint and Palm are partners, but because Pre literally has a Sprint-only radio in it. How could anything be more exclusive than that? You can be a Pre user in Buffalo, NY and you can’t make a phone call 10 minutes north of your house.

    What I hear in all this anti-iPhone PR is the deathbed pleading of the creaking dinosaurs who make up most of the technology industry. Very few of them make anything of sufficient quality to sell one at a time to people who have to actually use the device after they pay for it. And now Apple is even making inroads in corporate. And iPod touch is the US military’s favorite computer now. It’s literally the sharpshooter-approved computer. So there is going to be constant complaining about Apple because Microsoft and HP and Palm aren’t going to take the blame for their own demise.

    So with iPhone so popular people are asking “who is complaining?” I think that is an important question. Just who exactly is complaining? And what are their degrees of separation from old technology? Very informative.

  5. Marc Says:

    Apple never said they would allow any application, so they’re not breaking any promises. I don’t see the problem. If you want Google voice, get an Android phone.

  6. vacation market Says:

    Nice move from Apple to boost his iPhone Sales, which Blackberry from RiM are threatening their markets.

  7. Brad K. Says:

    Have you heard that Techdirt’s Mike Masnick has a stubby kidney prodder?

  8. JohnFen Says:

    Wow, someone is standing on Hamranhansenhansen’s last nerve!

    While I recognize the many excellent things about the iPhone,the downsides are too much for me, personally. Note: I’m not saying the iPhone sucks, nor that nobody should buy it, merely that I need a lot more from a palmtop computer than the iPhone gives me. Namely:

    1) I need a palmtop computer with a phone built in, not the other way around. The iPhone is tantalizingly close, but not there by design. The app store is the primary symptom of this — if I want to develop my own private, personal apps for my handheld (and I do), I need to either jailbreak the iPhone or pay Apple $100 per app (even if I never submit it to the apps store.) That’s a nonstarter. And don’t even mention using HTML 5 for app development. It doesn’t count.

    2) I do not do business with AT&T. There’s a whole ton of reasons why, from their eagerness to spy on Americans to the awfulness of their cell network.

    3) I cannot sell apps except through Apple.

    That’s it, really, but enough to keep me from ever purchasing an iPhone. I’m no dinosaur: I doubt you’ll find anyone more cutting edge than I. My business requires it. But the iPhone is simply not my cup of tea.

  9. Christian Says:

    Ok, I’m way behind the times. I just assumed that apple would publish any of the apps for their products since I keep hearing so many stupid commercials for all of their various apps….

    Closed Marketing System… There’s and App for that

  10. Finn Jack Says:

    Apple’s fluctuations in approving an app leads to “Whose iPhone is It Anyway”. But fact is Apple is so passionate on iPhone’s nativity and functionality. Google Voice’s rejection made Apple to restructure the approval process, which is good.

  11. bims Says:

    .) I am often to blogging and i really appreciate your content. The article has really peaks my interest. I am going to bookmark your site and keep checking for new information.

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