By Harry McCracken | Friday, August 21, 2009 at 6:05 pm
The 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?