Some thoughts on Apple’s answer to the FCC

Rea­ding Apple’s public ans­wer to the FCC’s ques­ti­ons, I can­not but noti­ce a few very spe­ci­fi­cal­ly worded parts of the ans­wer that I’d like to highlight.

The App Store pro­vi­des a fric­tion­less dis­tri­bu­ti­on net­work that levels the play­ing field for indi­vi­du­al and lar­ge deve­lo­pers of mobi­le appli­ca­ti­ons. We pro­vi­de every deve­lo­per with the same soft­ware that we use to crea­te our own iPho­ne appli­ca­ti­ons. The App Store offers an inno­va­ti­ve busi­ness model that allows deve­lo­pers to set their own pri­ce and keep more (far more in most cases) of the reve­nue than tra­di­tio­nal busi­ness models. In litt­le more than a year, we have rai­sed the bar for con­su­mer­s’ rich mobi­le expe­ri­ence bey­ond what we or anyo­ne else ever ima­gi­ned in both sca­le and qua­li­ty. Apple’s inno­va­ti­on has also fos­te­red com­pe­ti­ti­on as other com­pa­nies (e.g., Nokia, Micro­soft, RIM, Palm and Veri­zon) seek to deve­lop their own mobi­le plat­forms and launch their own appli­ca­ti­on stores.

(Empha­sis mine.) It may be that Apple pro­vi­des us with the soft­ware they use them­sel­ves, but not with the APIs. In fact, quite a few inte­res­t­ing bits of the iPho­ne are not available to the iPho­ne deve­lo­per who deci­des to pur­sue the Apple-aut­ho­ri­zed way only. Reports of things not being available are online aple­nty, but let’s just men­ti­on tasks or appli­ca­ti­ons run­ning in the back­ground, modi­fy­ing the came­ra dia­log or being able to add func­tion­a­li­ty to the set­tings dia­logs used by Apple’s Set­tings app that deve­lo­pers are expec­ted to hook into.

Apple works with net­work pro­vi­ders around the world so that iPho­ne users have access to a cel­lu­lar net­work. In the United Sta­tes, we struck a ground­brea­king deal with AT&T in 2006 that gives Apple the free­dom to deci­de which soft­ware to make available for the iPho­ne. This was an indus­try first.

Yes, inde­ed. This was an indus­try first – that this free­dom lie at the dis­cre­ti­on of Apple, and not just be a tran­sac­tion sole­ly bet­ween the user of the device and the soft­ware deve­lo­pers.  If a soft­ware com­pa­ny deci­ded to deve­lop for, say, the Palm Treo, they could just do that and offer their soft­ware for users of that platt­form.  If a com­pa­ny deci­ded that deve­lo­ping for Sym­bi­an was some­thing they’d like to do, they could just do that.  Same for Black­ber­ry and Win­dows Mobile.

Don’t get me wrong: I do under­stand that this is a dou­ble-edged sword.  No other platt­form has made it so easy for users to get soft­ware onto their devices; I do belie­ve that the App Store is one of the cor­ner­sto­nes of making deve­lo­p­ment for mobi­le plat­forms a via­ble busi­ness model.  That’s one reason why the short­co­mings of the App Store pro­cess are so irri­ta­ting – becau­se things could be even more fun for deve­lo­pers, now that the idea of deve­lo­ping for the iPho­ne full­time isn’t so far-fet­ched anymore.

And I’m not even men­tio­ning that as a cus­to­mer of T‑Mobile and as a ger­man iPho­ne deve­lo­per, I’m not sure why I even should care about the con­tract Apple has with AT&T. But this is not part of an inves­ti­ga­ti­on of the FCC.

Con­tra­ry to published reports, Apple has not rejec­ted the Goog­le Voice appli­ca­ti­on, and con­ti­nues to stu­dy it. 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. Apple spent a lot of time and effort deve­lo­ping this distinct and inno­va­ti­ve way to seam­less­ly deli­ver core func­tion­a­li­ty of the iPho­ne. For exam­p­le, on an iPho­ne, the “Pho­ne” icon that is always shown at the bot­tom of the Home Screen laun­ches Apple’s mobi­le tele­pho­ne appli­ca­ti­on, pro­vi­ding access to Favo­ri­tes, Recents, Cont­acts, a Key­pad, and Visu­al Voice­mail. The Goog­le Voice appli­ca­ti­on replaces Apple’s Visu­al Voice­mail by rou­ting calls through a sepa­ra­te Goog­le Voice tele­pho­ne num­ber that stores any voice­mail, pre­ven­ting voice­mail from being stored on the iPho­ne, i.e., dis­ab­ling Apple’s Visu­al Voice­mail. Simi­lar­ly, SMS text mes­sa­ges are mana­ged through the Goog­le hub—replacing the iPhone’s text mes­sa­ging fea­ture. In addi­ti­on, 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.

(Empha­sis again mine.) Well, I find that hard to belie­ve.  From my under­stan­ding of the tech­no­lo­gies invol­ved, the­re is no way that Goog­le Voice could be repla­cing any func­tion­a­li­ty on the iPho­ne.  They may be offe­ring an appli­ca­ti­on that offers simi­lar or equal func­tion­a­li­ty – but it’s hard­ly a novel idea that com­pa­nies would come in and offer soft­ware that does the same thing as an alre­a­dy exis­ting pie­ce of code, only poten­ti­al­ly bet­ter – or rather, more in line with what the users expec­ta­ti­ons and needs are. If that’s what the users want, Apple would be well-advi­sed to lis­ten.  And if the users find the expe­ri­ence too con­fu­sing for their own good or plain­ly do not like the appli­ca­ti­on, no inte­rest in it will hap­pen any­way.  I think that’s what’s cal­led a mar­ket economy.

But it brings us around to the point from abo­ve: Even though the tools Apple offers are the same they use, there’s a strong distinc­tion of what the inde­pen­dent deve­lo­per is allo­wed (or able) to do, and what they them­sel­ves do.  The­re is, for ins­tance, no way of ans­we­ring a pho­ne call pro­gra­ma­ti­cal­ly on the iPho­ne, and I’ve got at least two ide­as for appli­ca­ti­ons that would be doing that.  Or fil­ter out types of SMS that get rou­ted to an appli­ca­ti­on, which would then act on them.  Heck: I’d just like to be able to get an appli­ca­ti­on to be star­ted at a spe­ci­fic time of day, reliably.

The fol­lo­wing appli­ca­ti­ons also fall into this category.

Name: GVDia­ler / GVDia­ler Lite
Deve­lo­per: MobileMax
Name: VoiceCentral
Deve­lo­per: River­turn, Inc.
4819 Emper­or Blvd., Suite 400
Dur­ham, NC 27703
Name: GV Mobi­le / GV Mobi­le Free
Deve­lo­per: Sean Kovacs
We are con­ti­nuing to stu­dy the Goog­le Voice appli­ca­ti­on and its poten­ti­al impact on the iPho­ne user expe­ri­ence. Goog­le is of cour­se free to pro­vi­de Goog­le Voice on the iPho­ne as a web appli­ca­ti­on through Apple’s Safa­ri brow­ser, just as they do for desk­top PCs, or to pro­vi­de its “Goog­le-bran­de­d” user expe­ri­ence on other pho­nes, inclu­ding Android-based pho­nes, and let con­su­mers make their choices.

I’m taking one app out of that list: GV Mobi­le.  It’s deve­lo­per, Sean Kovacs reports dif­fer­ent­ly. It also has not rejec­ted GV Mobi­le; it had appro­ved it and sud­den­ly pul­led it from the App Store, with some war­ning in advan­ce to the deve­lo­per. This, to me, is not „con­ti­nuing to stu­dy it.“  Of cour­se, it’s also not rejec­ting it – becau­se it had been approved.

Apple does not know if the­re is a VoIP ele­ment in the way the Goog­le Voice appli­ca­ti­on rou­tes calls and mes­sa­ges, and whe­ther VoIP tech­no­lo­gy is used over the 3G net­work by the appli­ca­ti­on. Apple has appro­ved num­e­rous stan­dard VoIP appli­ca­ti­ons (such as Sky­pe, Nim­buzz and iCall) for use over WiFi, but not over AT&T’s 3G network.

I’m not sure what to even make of this para­graph.  Are they try­ing to tell us they do not know how Goog­le Voice works? Or that their exami­na­ti­on of the app has not even rea­ched a sta­te whe­re they would be likely to … try out how it works? From my under­stan­ding of what I read online, it should not be hard to figu­re out that the app does not use VoIP over 3G – and there’s always the pos­si­bi­li­ty of actual­ly asking the deve­lo­pers how their app func­tions. But this para­graph alo­ne does not instill trust into the appr­oval pro­cess with me.

But let’s see what comes of all this.  May­be Apple will impro­ve the qua­li­ty of the review pro­cess, as they say they’­re plan­ning to.

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