iPhone app issue shows mobile Net growing pains

Useful applications such as Google Voice won't be blocked from the iPhone as competition, Apple changes, or Web apps will break today's logjam.

At one level, the fracas about Google's stymied attempt to bring Google Voice to the iPhone is a squabble about who gets to control the phone's user interface. But in the bigger picture, it's a fight that was destined to happen as the free-wheeling ways of the Internet arrive in a handset-sized package.

The Google Voice issue led to a Federal Communications Commission inquiry and carefully crafted, detailed responses last week from each of the companies. Those views revealed that if Google Voice hadn't catalyzed the disagreement, something else would have.

Google is a company born of the Internet. Through search, it's been able to extract immense profits by making sense of the chaos of links on the Internet. It's working to disrupt every industry from books and news to word processing and telecommunications by rebuilding them atop the Internet.

AT&T and Apple, on the other hand, are more affiliated with the "walled garden" philosophy. Carriers are accustomed to being gateways to the Internet, controlling what applications appear on a mobile phone and what Net services they connect to. And even though there's plenty of third-party software for Macs, every application for the iPhone requires Apple's approval first and iTunes only works with Apple's devices.

The way I see things shaking out, Google and its kind will prevail in the long run, for good or ill. As with the Internet on computers, it'll mostly be up to us to decide what applications to use. Today's kerfuffle shows that we're going through mobile Web growing pains right now as major players seek to establish their brands and seize the customer relationships, but ultimately this particular adolescence will pass.

Rashomon
So what did the companies say to the FCC about the Google Voice situation? That depends on who's telling the tale.

Google Voice's Web-based iPhone interface.
Google Voice's Web-based iPhone interface. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

AT&T said flatly it had "no role in Apple's consideration of Google Voice," though it said it sometimes does get involved when Apple is considering applications such as Pandora's music streaming service that could stress AT&T's 3G network. "AT&T has had discussions with Apple regarding only a handful of applications that have been submitted to Apple for review where...there were concerns that the application might create significant network congestion," said James W. Cicconi, AT&T's senior vice president of external and legislative affairs.

And even though Google Voice isn't a voice over Internet Protocol application that actually makes calls over the Net, AT&T also did say its agreement with Apple means Apple may not actively lend developers a hand building VoIP applications. "Both parties (AT&T and Apple) required assurances that the revenues from the AT&T voice plans available to iPhone customers would not be reduced by enabling VoIP calling functionality on the iPhone," Cicconi said.

For its part, Apple denied rejecting the Google Voice application, saying it's only studying it for now. It did withdraw other related apps such as GV Mobile, though, and did express concerns with Google Voice as submitted for approval, so clearly Google's application faces challenges within Apple.

"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," the company said in a statement.

Google's FCC letter described what it intended with the app--a tool with an in-box to see what calls have been placed to a person's Google Voice number, to read transcripts and hear recordings of voice mail, to read SMS text messages sent to the Google Voice phone number, to add contacts, and to respond via call or SMS to any message in the Google Voice in-box.

However, when it came to the juicy bit, the description of its discussions with Apple, Google redacted the public version of its letter, saying it was sensitive information it wanted guarded from competitors. One can imagine, though, that Google isn't happy with the situation given how important Google Voice is to the company's ambitions.

What happens next?
It's hard to predict exactly what will come next immediately. Apple has given itself wiggle room by saying it's still studying the Google Voice application, so perhaps we will see Google Voice on the iPhone.

In the medium term, it's clear at least some changes are coming to the App Store approval process. Although tens of thousands of applications are available, developers have complained about issues of inconsistent application of rules, opaque communications from Apple, long approval times, and other problems. Apple has begun speaking about its App Store processes more, and it had this to say to the FCC: "Apple also established an App Store executive review board that determines procedures and sets policy for the review process, as well as reviews applications that are escalated to the board because they raise new or complex issues."

In the long term, I believe Google will win out because it has one powerful ally on its side: the Web.

One of the iPhone's big assets is a real browser that lets people see the Web in a form much closer to what they get on regular computers, though more slowly and on a small screen. And Apple's engineers are busy working on improvements, with faster JavaScript program execution and features such as support for built-in audio and video.

Meanwhile, Google is working as hard as it can to make the Web as powerful a foundation for running applications as possible, through its own Chrome browser and through extras such as Native Client and O3D that can let Web apps take advantage of a computer's built-in processing power.

Perhaps as important, Google is also developing and aggressively promoting its own suite of Web applications such as Gmail that benefit from the Web application work. And let's not forget it has its own smartphone operating system, Android, with a vastly more permissive application approval process.

Much of Google's work is nascent, and the Web is a primitive foundation in many ways even on a full-fledged PC. But the trajectory is clear. When Apple rejected the Google Latitude application it wanted to release for the iPhone, Google released a Web-based version instead. And there's already a Google Voice site iPhone users can reach through the Web. Today you can't listen to your messages with it, but with the built-in audio of HTML 5 and a reasonable network connection, at least some of it seems possible to me even in the near term.

Unlocking the power of the Net
AT&T sought to assure the FCC that there's nothing anticompetitive going on between it and Apple, arguing customers have abundant choices when it comes to mobile devices these days and drawing attention to Google's own technology:

"In the Google/Android model, for example, the operating system is reportedly accessible to any developer with no pre-certification process, thus allowing Google and its broadband and device partners to offer a different, competing customer experience--one that may be preferred by some consumers, but that involves its own trade-offs as the consumer bears a greater risk of malware and lower quality applications," Cicconi said.

That's a fair point, even if locked phones and two-year service contracts make changing phones a lot harder than changing TV channels. Ultimately, if a lot of people want Google Voice or other applications that tread on carriers' toes or muddle the purity of the iPhone experience in some way, they'll probably get their way through Web apps, jailbroken phones, or some more permissive combination of phone and carrier.

AT&T is also right to suggest that world might well have more issues with dangerous or bad applications, but customers won't like it when good and useful applications are blocked. Ultimately, what's tremendous about the iPhone is that it unlocks the power of the Net, not that it provides a defanged but limited version.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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