The Great iPhone Lockdown

Should the FCC force Apple to sell Google’s apps?

Google CEO Eric Schmidt

Apple has some explaining to do. Last week, the company banished every application that uses Google Voice —the search company’s fantastic ring-all-your-phones telephone service—from the iPhone App Store. This wasn’t unusual. Apple has been capriciously rejecting apps for reasons that it refuses to disclose since the App Store debuted; the only mild surprise was that Google, Apple’s corporate ally, was on the receiving end. The truly shocking news came on Friday, when the Federal Communications Commission dashed off letters to Apple and AT&T asking why the apps were rejected.

The FCC has traditionally maintained a hands-off policy with regard to cell phone companies. But Julius Genachowski, the new FCC chairman, has vowed to increase competition in the wireless industry. The iPhone seems like the best place to start: It’s the biggest new wireless software platform, and it’s also the most locked-down. It’s hard not to cheer—if mobile apps are going to prosper, it’s time the government stepped in to keep Apple in line.

Developers have long ranted about Apple’s arbitrary software-review process. Every program must be approved by the company before making it to people’s phones; developers who’ve braved the process say that the company takes weeks to respond to submissions and that it never releases general, understandable guidelines about what it will approve. To take a recent example: Apple has accepted many dictionary apps, but over the last few weeks it rejected several different versions of a program called Ninjawords. Apple’s reason: The app included objectionable language—which, of course, you’d expect in a dictionary and which is true of other dictionaries that Apple had already approved. As John Gruber reports, Apple demanded that developers remove from their app all words it deemed objectionable—even words that have nonoffensive meanings, such as ass, snatch, pussy, cock, and screw—and it slapped an adults-only rating on the app.

The ban on various Google apps is more troubling. First, Apple rejected Google Latitude—a program that lets you stalk your friends on a map. Apple’s reasoning: iPhone users might get confused between Latitude and the iPhone’s built-in map application. Next came the blackout of Google Voice, an incredibly useful program that lets you use a single number to route your calls through many different phones; it also transcribes your voice mail and lets you listen to your messages on any Internet-connected device. An iPhone version would have given people quick access to their voice mail, and it would have let them place cheap long-distance calls from the road. (Voice is still in beta, but Google has hinted that it will open to the public soon.) Apple approved several Google Voice-connected apps earlier this year, but last week it notified all developers that their apps would be pulled from the store. Why? The cryptic explanation was that the apps “duplicated features of the iPhone.”

This makes no sense. Apple has approved many apps that provide “functionality” that’s already available on the phone—Skype lets you make calls, for instance, and Textfree lets you send text messages. But this is Apple’s way. Unlike Amazon, which publicly repented after deleting copies of George Orwell’s books from people’s Kindles, Apple banishes apps without apology and gives explanations that elide the company’s real thinking. Check out this Kafka-esque transcript of a conversation between an Apple representative and Kevin Duerr, CEO of a company called Riverturn whose Google Voice-enabled app, VoiceCentral, was banned from the store last week. When Duerr asks why Apple—which had approved the app months before—has suddenly decided that VoiceCentral violates the store’s policy, the representative replies, “I can’t say—only that yours is not complying with our policy.” Could Riverturn change the app in any way to bring it back in compliance? “I can’t go into granular detail.” What about Riverturn’s future apps—are there any specific features it should avoid in order to be allowed into the store? “I can’t help you with that.” Was there anyone else at Apple that Duerr could speak to? “You can only talk to me.”

The tech blogosphere has puzzled over the reason for the Voice ban. Some fingered AT&T—perhaps the company was wary of approving an app that let people make cheap phone calls. But others noted that made little sense; after all, AT&T hasn’t objected to Google Voice apps on other phones on its network, including the BlackBerry. Apple’s actions have already caused a rift with Google, which it has worked with closely in the past. On Monday, Google CEO Eric Schmidt stepped down from Apple’s board of directors. Both companies described the split as amicable; with Google now building its own mobile phones and desktop operating system, the companies are in too many conflicting businesses to remain so cozy, they explained.

This gets to why the FCC’s involvement is so important. In its letters to Apple and AT&T, the commission gave the companies a deadline of Aug. 21 to answer a few simple questions regarding how the App Store is managed. In particular, the FCC wants to know whether Apple consults with AT&T before banning apps, and whether Apple maintains any general guidelines outlining which apps will get rejected from the store. These are great questions, ones that Apple has never answered. Anything that Apple provides will help both developers and iPhone users get a better sense of what their phones can and can’t do.

To be sure, not everyone in the tech world is happy with the FCC’s intrusion. Ryan Radia of the Technology Liberation Front blog argues that Apple is within its rights to do whatever it wants with its phone. Every iPhone user knows that the device is completely controlled by Apple—and Apple’s surging sales numbers suggest that users don’t care. Consumers and developers aren’t locked into the iPhone, Radia argues; if people don’t want to put up with Apple’s strictures, they can get another phone.

Radia’s argument isn’t crazy. Just the other day, I argued that the government shouldn’t go after Google for antitrust violations because the tech industry is fluid; companies that are on top today can fall tomorrow. So what if Apple rejects apps capriciously? If its actions are so terrible, consumers will eventually abandon it.

Yet that analysis misses a key point: The iPhone runs on public networks and therefore falls under government jurisdiction. At the very least, the regulators have a duty to ensure fair competition on wireless networks—and by arbitrarily blocking rivals from its device, the iPhone’s software platform simply isn’t fair. We would never accept its rules in other contexts: Imagine if Apple were building cars instead of phones and one day decided that everyone who’d bought an iCar would be banned from listening to any music not purchased from iTunes. Or say that Apple banned all Mac users from downloading Firefox because the browser duplicated the functionality of Safari. Such restrictions sound ridiculous; they wouldn’t pass the barest scrutiny of regulators or consumers. So why should we allow Apple to do the same thing with the iPhone?