Apple just rejected the Google Voice iPhone application from App Store distribution, the most recent in a long line of questionable moves, and the message is clear: If you want a device that won’t lock you out of innovation, skip the iPhone.
Photo by rore.
Lest We Forget
There’s no question that this brilliant little piece of hardware has sparked a revolution in the world of mobile computing and cellphones, and, likewise, there’s no question that consumers have benefited from that. I’ve been a believer in the iPhone from the start (hell, I even co-wrote a book on the stupid thing), but despite all the missteps Apple has made along the way, it always at least seemed plausible that they were holding out on apps or making unpopular decisions with some sort of good reason. (That was probably always willful ignorance, and Apple’s culture of secrecy just makes it that much easier to assume there’s some Very Special Reason for their bad decisions.) Still, I’ve never regretted buying an iPhone until now.
Over the course of the day, most people have speculated that Google Voice was rejected from the App Store at AT&T's behest. The reason? Apple's official line is that Google Voice duplicates features already on the iPhone—namely the Phone and Messages app. Of course, none of that holds water, considering the App Store is already full of alternate SMS apps and apps like Skype that sport a telephone dialer.
So what separates Google Voice from the other, already-approved tools that offer similar features to the iPhone's default apps? As far as we can tell, the main issue is competition. AT&T doesn't see Joe Schmoe's SMS Big Keyboard Deluxe (it's a real app) as much of a threat to the colossal ripoff that is text messaging, for example, but people may actually want to use Google Voice.
From another angle, Apple only seems concerned with duplication of features if an application competes with an app that they already made. If you're competing with another non-default third-party application, you can go and duplicate all you want (hence the oft-cited Fart apps). Still, if a Google Voice app actually does duplicate the functions of the telephone/SMS applications that ship with the iPhone, I want to know how I can use my iPhone to check my Google Voice inbox, send messages via Google Voice, or get my voicemails transcribed with what Apple and AT&T are offering. And do not send me to a crappy iPhone 1.0 webapp.
The real problem, then, is that Google Voice, and all it offers, is actually much better than what AT&T offers.
Forget About Innovation
It's unfortunate, of course, because Google Voice doesn't actually stop anyone from using AT&T. It's not a VoIP app (yet), so you still need AT&T for it to work at all. Again, it simply improves on what the iPhone already has. It would actually make AT&T—and the iPhone—better. From my perspective as a consumer, that in turn makes the iPhone a much more attractive device. Since it's been rejected on the iPhone but approved for Android phones and BlackBerrys, that in turn makes both of those devices that much more attractive.
Sure you can switch carriers if you're not happy—as long as you're willing to empty your pockets to drop out of your contract. That's always been the case. But Apple/AT&T have never sent such a clear message in the past about just how restrictive they'll get if they feel threatened by an application. Those of us who were once excited at the seemingly limitless potential of the App Store now know where we stand.
Apple would like you to believe that the goals of the App Store approval process are lofty ones—that they're only approving innovative apps and that the only reason they don't approve apps is to protect you from bad software or, horror of horrors, confusion. Because god knows it’d be confusing as hell to use a better phone application than what came with the phone. Meanwhile, thank god we can pass our time with iWet T-Shirts (borderline NSFW).
It’s All About the Software
As far as I’m concerned, there’s two things that set the iPhone apart from its competition: 1) It’s got great hardware, and 2) It’s got the most third-party applications.
The first issue is a hurdle for other phone providers/phone manufacturers to figure out; some already have matched the iPhone’s hardware (as far as its guts go, the iPhone and the Palm Pre aren’t all that different) and others will eventually.
The second is where Apple is really asking for it. The more alienated developers feel—especially good developers who're trying to build something new and innovative (as opposed to those looking to join the Fart app gravy train)—the less time they're going to spend playing iPhone App Store roulette. Which means that if you want a phone where you can expect some real innovation, you should probably skip the iPhone.
Isn’t This a Bit Familiar?
The iPhone is a full-on computer in your pocket, and in many ways is more capable than your regular old PC. Imagine, if you can, that Microsoft tried dictating what browser you had to use on Windows. Oh right, that happened. Except they didn’t refuse to allow you to use any other browser just because it duplicated the features of their default browser. And as Wired points out, Apple is inviting all kinds of regulation with this kind of mindset. And it hasn’t just been about Google Voice:
Apple and AT&T are living dangerously though. Apple has also forced video services like Slingbox to cripple their applications because of purported concerns over data usage, while approving ones from paying partners (e.g. Major League Baseball) that would put more strain on a network than Slingbox's would.
If the iPhone's default applications were better than those submitted by Google or by some other third-party developer, then people would use them. If not, then that's a sign that they need to make them better—not a red flag that they should start pulling apps left and right from the App Store because of "duplication."
Why You Should Care
At the end of the day, this isn't simply a Google Voice/iPhone problem—it's a concern for everyone, iPhone owner or not, with an interest in the latest and greatest crop of smartphones. Google's Android OS may be open source, but that doesn’t mean they’re above pulling apps when pressured by carriers. Right now the non-iPhone manufacturers and carriers are much more willing to allow anything on their platform because, frankly, they’re desperate to get some of the attention the iPhone already has. That doesn’t mean that’ll always be the case.
Every now and then, we like to go on grumpy, long-winded, opinionated rants. We’re far from the definitive voice, and your feelings may differ, so feel free to air your thoughts in the comments.