Monday, 24 August 2009

The battle for the iPhone

Why Apple, Google and the Government are fighting for control of your phone

If you owned a shop, would you expect the government to tell you what products you should sell in it? Recently, America's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asked Apple to explain its decision not to sell Google Voice in its iPhone App Store. Their interest was presumably piqued by online protests from those challenging Apple's policy of vetting 3rd party apps.

Protests have focused on Google Voice, despite the fact that few people know what the service does, and fewer still actually use it. The two most common allegations against Apple are that this decision is anti-competitive and that it infringes iPhone owners' rights. But is there any merit to these allegations?

The iPhone is not the only gadget with built-in constraints upon its functionality. Devices such as games consoles and DVD players are similarly limited, (try skipping one of those tedious copyright warnings at the start of a movie). Whilst we may be free to use the electronics that we purchase as we see fit, manufacturers are free to determine the scope of functionality for the gadgets that they sell us. And if you choose to make your own modifications (such as installing Linux on your Xbox, or jail-breaking your iPhone) you only have yourself to blame if the manufacturer informs you that your warranty is now void. There may also be legal limitations in your right to customise. For example, in America, you are not free to modify your equipment if this results in a circumvention of copyright protection technology, in which case you will have committed a criminal offense under the DMCA. (Apple is currently arguing that this is the case in relation to iPhone jail-breaking).

Which brings us to the second allegation - that Apple is being anti-competitive in not selling the Google Voice application in its store. In the tech world, the term "anti-competitive" inevitably brings to mind the US Department of Justice and the European Commission's cases against Microsoft. However, there is a key different here between the iPhone and Windows. The iPhone may be popular, but it is far from a monopoly. At best, it represent 20% of the smartphone market, and competition is very healthy, with new entrants, such as Android and Palm's new Web OS emerging all the time. Whilst many consumers have no option but to use Microsoft Windows on the desktop, there is a great deal more choice when it comes to the mobile sector.

In other words, if you don't like Apple's policy of rejecting some 3rd party applications, you're free to buy a competitor product instead. And since the iPhone was never marketed as a device suitable for using Google Voice, then iPhone owners can hardly complain if it is not fit for that purpose. They could always purchase a competitor product that does support Google Voice, like Google's own Android OS. Apple's customers are not locked-in to iPhone OS in the way in which Microsoft's customers are locked in to Windows.

Apple has, this week, responded to the FCC, offering an explanation for their policies. It remains to be seen whether their response will satisfy the FCC, and what remedial action the agency may take if it does not. Either way, what sense can we make of Apple's position here? By limiting their users' freedom, aren't they committing a PR own-goal, without any obvious benefit? After all, few people are likely to use Google Voice anyway, and even if they do, wouldn't Apple prefer that they did this on an iPhone, rather than on a competitor's device?

The answer goes to the heart of Apple's uniqueness and its recent success. Whilst companies like Microsoft and Google sell software, and companies like Sony and Dell sell hardware, Apple's position as a true hybrid is practically unique. The remarkable success of the iPod and iPhone is due in no small part to their trademark ease of use, and this is achieved by a tight integration between hardware and software. Apps such as Google Voice allow the user to swap out core features of the device to be handled by third party software, and Apple's concern is that the seamless user experience will suffer as a consequence.

It will be interesting to see how the next few weeks play out. Apple is hedging its bets, claiming that it hasn't rejected the Google Voice app, but rather, it simply hasn't accepted it yet. They would doubtless prefer to reject it, but are, at this stage, testing the water with the Feds, to see how far they want to take this. If the FCC acquiesces, then Apple will presumably never get around to approving Google's pesky app. Then it will be down to the consumer, rather than the government, to decide whether they favor the stunning simplicity of a functionally constrained iPhone, to the flexible utility of an clunky, unintuitive Android handset.


  1. As for any PR release, it’s mostly polished BS and lies. Of course it was the telcos shot Google Voice down, limited Skype, and crippled the SlingPlayer!

    The whole “replicated function” reason is just plain hypocrisy. There are tons of dial pads, media players, web browsers, and weather apps that have been approved and featured in the App Store. But, it would be foolish to assume Apple didn’t compromise with an industry so used to charging $5 for tiny wallpapers and tinny ringtones.

    Unlike Windows PC’s, iPhone users are contracted to the device’s carrier, whose subjective app rejections/limitations have a quantifiable negative impact on competitive practices.

    The whole controversy surrounding Google Voice makes me wonder if there will be a future NDA required in the future for apps pending approval. Amidst the App Store fiasco, Rhapsody couldn’t have picked a more timely app submission and pre-announcement.

    Down the line, it’s only a matter of time until the novelty of instant accessibility wears off the overpriced dumb pipes. One can only hope that with such a greater user penetration, the bandwidth allocation and neutrality reach levels similar to broadband.

  2. This would be fun: To coincide with Windows 7 in October, Apple releases new iMacs with Quad Core i7s and new MacBooks, plus brand new iLife and iWork suites re-written to take advantage of Grand Central Dispatch. And they fly.

  3. 3 out of 4...not bad.

  4. Yup - pretty prescient, Scott :)

  5. Apple is hedging its bets, claiming that it hasn't rejected the Google Voice app, but rather, it simply hasn't accepted it yet.
    They're (Apple) seems pretend that they never know about Google voice app. LOL

    iPhone Users