Bad Apple: An Argument Against Buying An iPhone

Apple rejected the Google Voice iPhone application from App Store distribution yesterday, the most recent in a long line of questionable moves, and the message is clear: If you want a device that won't lock you out of innovation, skip the iPhone.

(Oz ed note: While some of this discussion is a bit academic for Australian users, since we're blocked out of Google Voice anyway, Adam makes a good general point.)

Lest We Forget

There's no question that this brilliant little piece of hardware has sparked a revolution in the world of mobile computing and mobile phones, and, likewise, there's no question that consumers have benefited from that. I've been a believer in the iPhone from the start (hell, I even co-wrote a book on the stupid thing), but despite all the missteps Apple has made along the way, it always at least seemed plausible that they were holding out on apps or making unpopular decisions with some sort of good reason. (That was probably always willful ignorance, and Apple's culture of secrecy just makes it that much easier to assume there's some Very Special Reason for their bad decisions.) Still, I've never regretted buying an iPhone until now.

Refusing Competition

Over the course of the day, most people have speculated that Google Voice was rejected from the App Store at AT&T's behest. The reason? Apple's official line is that Google Voice duplicates features already on the iPhone—namely the Phone and Messages app. Of course, none of that holds water, considering the App Store is already full of alternate SMS apps and apps like Skype that sport a telephone dialer.

So what separates Google Voice from the other, already-approved tools that offer similar features to the iPhone's default apps? As far as we can tell, the main issue is competition. AT&T doesn't see Joe Schmoe's SMS Big Keyboard Deluxe (it's a real app) as much of a threat to the colossal ripoff that is text messaging, for example.

Apple only seems concerned with duplication of features if an application competes with an app that they already made. If you're competing with another third-party application, you can go duplicate all you want [hence the oft-cited Fart apps] . Still, if a Google Voice app actually does duplicate the functions of the telephone/SMS applications that ship with the iPhone, I want to know how I can use my iPhone to check my Google Voice inbox, send messages via Google Voice, or get my voicemails transcribed with what Apple and AT&T are offering. And do not send me to a crappy iPhone 1.0 webapp.

The real problem, then, is that Google Voice, and all it offers, is actually much better than what AT&T offers.

Forget About Innovation

It's unfortunate, of course, because Google Voice doesn't actually stop anyone from using AT&T. It's not a VoIP app (yet), so you still need AT&T for it to work at all. Again, it simply improves on what the iPhone already has. It would actually make AT&T—and the iPhone—better. From my perspective as a consumer, that in turn makes the iPhone a much more attractive device. Since it's been rejected on the iPhone but approved for Android phones and BlackBerrys, that in turn makes both of those devices that much more attractive.

Sure you can switch carriers if you're not happy—as long as you're willing to empty your pockets to drop out of your contract. That's always been the case. But Apple/AT&T have never sent such a clear message in the past about just how restrictive they'll get if they feel threatened by an application. Those of us who were once excited at the seemingly limitless potential of the App Store now know where we stand.

Apple would like you to believe that the goals of the App Store approval process are lofty ones—that they're only approving innovative apps and that the only reason they don't approve apps is to protect you from bad software or, horror of horrors, confusion. Because god knows it'd be confusing as hell to use a better phone application than what came with the phone. Meanwhile, thank god we can pass our time with iWet T-Shirts (borderline NSFW).

It's All About the Software

As far as I'm concerned, there's two things that set the iPhone apart from its competition: 1) It's got great hardware, and 2) It's got the most third-party applications.

The first issue is a hurdle for other phone providers/phone manufacturers to figure out; some already have matched the iPhone's hardware (as far as its guts go, the iPhone and the Palm Pre aren't all that different) and others will eventually.

The second is where Apple is really asking for it. The more alienated developers feel—especially good developers who're trying to build something new and innovative (as opposed to those looking to join the Fart app gravy train)—the less time they're going to spend playing iPhone App Store roulette. Which means that if you want a phone where you can expect some real innovation, you should probably skip the iPhone.

Isn't This a Bit Familiar?

The iPhone is a full-on computer in your pocket, and in many ways is more capable than your regular old PC. Imagine, if you can, that Microsoft tried dictating what what browser you had to use on Windows. Oh right, that happened. Except they didn't refuse to allow you to use any other browser just because it duplicated the features of their default browser. And as Wired points out, Apple is inviting all kinds of regulation with this kind of mindset. And it hasn't just been about Google Voice:

Apple and AT&T are living dangerously though. Apple has also forced video services like Slingbox to cripple their applications because of purported concerns over data usage, while approving ones from paying partners (e.g. Major League Baseball) that would put more strain on a network than Slingbox's would.

If the iPhone's default applications were better than those submitted by Google or by some other third-party developer, then people would use them. If not, then that's a sign that they need to make them better—not a red flag that they should start pulling apps left and right from the App Store because of "duplication."

Why You Should Care

At the end of the day, this isn't simply a Google Voice/iPhone problem—it's a concern for everyone, iPhone owner or not, with an interest in the latest and greatest crop of smartphones. Google's Android OS may be open source, but that doesn't mean they're above pulling apps when pressured by carriers. Right now the non-iPhone manufacturers and carriers are much more willing to allow anything on their platform because, frankly, they're desperate to get some of the attention the iPhone already has. That doesn't mean that'll always be the case.

Every now and then, we like to go on grumpy, long-winded, opinionated rants. We're far from the definitive voice, and your feelings may differ, so feel free to air your thoughts in the comments.

Photo by rore.


Comments

    I am really not sure how anyone who writes about tech can make these cheap comparisons between the iPhone and microsofts behaviour which led to the famous court case in which MS were found guilty of abusing a monopoly position, a decision that was upheld even after the appeal. Apple aren't in a comparable position either in the computing, phone nor media sectors and they are neither using the same criminal tactics that Microsoft did.

    I know it's very fashionable to make a casual comparison but a journalist should be a bit more aware of the differences, everyone else should at least check the wiki or read a good book on Microsoft and the anti-trust laws before jumping on the bandwagon.

    And for the rest of the world, not using AT&T it doesn't matter? AT&T's domestic monopoly has global reach?

    I think this was inevitable, apple has famously been "our way" or the hwy for years now, if they don't like it there users don't get it. its that simple. I for one have not and will not buy into the hype that is the iphone. Give me an android device any-day.

    "feel free to differ"? Not bloody likely. This is the sort of thing that made me buy an Android phone instead of the iPhone.

    IPhone will always be a pretty toy. If you want something real get a Blackberry or an Android. I don't know about Android security but Blackberry is really secure.

    AK.

    I think the care factor here is fairly low. AT&T is not in Australia and niether is Google Voice. There's no point in complaing about something we can't use anyway. AT&T has a monopoloy with the iPhone in the US. There is NO telco monopoly with the iPhone here. As for the Microsoft monopoly BS, well that was related to the back room dealings that MS had with the various PC suppliers; and that is not applicable here. Apple makes the iPhone and well as the software, it's their device so they can packate it as they want. If you don't like it, don't buy it. Next thing you'll be complaining that Nokia won't allow us to put OS/X on their phones or that Sony won't allow us to play Xbox games, etc... Get real. I for one find the iPhone suits my purposes. I didn't buy it for potential future applications that I can't use, I bought it for what it does now.

      To each their own, but the parallels at the end of your argument are weak: there's big a difference between what OS runs on a phone and then dictating what applications will run on it. Even when Microsoft wanted to exclusively bundle IE, you could always install Netscape yourself. Apple doesn't even allow that. Also, there is a pretty obvious parallel between Microsoft doing deals with PC suppliers and Apple doing deals with telcos . . .

        Yeah it was a weak argument I guess :)

        It's interesting how this device has attracted so many passionate opinions. I guess my point should have been more about how the PC really was a common device. Common in that it was a standard made by many companies. It was made to be available for any program to be written for it and was. And yes MS tried to control that, but failed. I think the iPhone is a little different. It's not common, it's one companies device. Yes, it has made itself available for other applications, but Apple stipulated controlling rights up front (they didn't hide that). And in this situation they seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place, that being AT&T. Apple is controlled in part by agreements it made with AT&T. There must be a strong financial reason for their action. On the other hand, I don't believe what happens in the US should be reflected in the rest of the world, that is, they shouldn't ban apps worldwide based on a local telco. I know that if I felt that strongly, I'd just jailbreak the phone and move on as I don't feel any other phone is good enough (for my needs).

        Sometimes these arguments about the control of Apps on the iPhone just seem a little too much like the gift horse scenario. Apple gave you a lot on one device and now people want it all.

        I guess people have to complain about the iPhone, because Android currently doesn't give us what many of us want and the Pre still has a way to go. We know the iPhone can do it all, and when someone stops us from achieving it, we feel peeved.

        Well, use Android phones then if it suits your needs and not "locking you out of innovation".

        Google Voice is definitely causing huge fears in AT&T and other major telcos (Telstra comes to mind), because it is threatening their main source of revenue. It should NOT be a surprise, that they are protecting that. AT&T is afraid that the mass appeal and usability of the iPhone will bring Google Voice to the general population, where (maybe) 50% or more of their mobile subscriptions will convert instead of paying for a phone call or sms. If there is something that seriously threatens your business, will you not protect it somehow? (alternatively give better service/coverage/lower fees, but hey, I never said AT&T is clever).

        The contract between Apple and AT&T obviously include some sort of arrangement which gives AT&T's rights to disallow certain applications, and unfortunately that's something Apple have to deal with for 3 more years.

        And from the last keynote in June, it's also OBVIOUS Apple is half-regretting that. Just look at their swipes against AT&T for not having internet tethering and MMS.

        While I love to have Google Voice on my iPhone, and also pissed that it's being disallowed. Saying that iPhone is actively locking you out of innovation is also bullcrap.

    @Bernie: "I think the care factor here is fairly low. AT&T is not in Australia and niether is Google Voice. There’s no point in complaing about something we can’t use anyway". One of the reasons I unlocked my iPhone was because I travel overseas and prefer to use a domestic SIM when I'm there. There are certainly many places where I can or could make use of services restricted in the US or Australia.

    @Bernie: "the PC really was a common device. Common in that it was a standard made by many companies. It was made to be available for any program to be written for it and was. And yes MS tried to control that, but failed."

    It was made for IBM for its own ends and released into the wild. About the only thing tying together all the disparate versions of PC-like hardware over the years was the Windows driver model. Hardware manufacturers benefited from sticking close to spec.

    @Angus: Every O/S maker bundles their own browser. It's only now with Opera railing at the EU that Microsoft is offering to have a download option on the desktop. I can't see Apple or Nokia doing that without similar regulatory pressure. Nokia is as big a company as Microsoft and I believe has more devices running its software.

    FWIW many OEMs have added other browsers to Windows PCs for some years. OEMs are obviously doing deals with software manufacturers all over the farm (not just Microsoft) as you can see from all the crapware that gets preinstalled on your PCs now, most of which loads a call-home stub. I wish people would complain about that as much as Microsoft wanting to deliver its own product unmodified. Having worked on very big software products, I know that the test-matrix for delivering umpteen dozen custom SKUs is a real nightmare. I cannot think of any real-world case where a company is asked to deliver a complex product thus.

    On Windows the first app for a file/service is always the default. Install a new one and that generally takes over as default without affecting the way the original runs. For years Apple tried to apply its "my way or the highway" philosophy even when installing its software (like iTunes or QuickTime) onto Windows - it reset system defaults every time the software was invoked. That's like saying that if I occasionally use a soup-ladle, then that should become my default spoon.

    Anyway I digress. I'd be more confident in continuing use of an iPhone if it weren't for all the restrictions that keep getting placed on my day to day usage of it. For that there are no parallels with any other OS or device maker that I know of.

    If anyone released a mobile phone that was as open and customisable as my PC I would snap it up in a second. I do like my iPhone though.

    Roger: Android is damn close, 10 times more customizable then your iphone thats for sure.

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