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Summary:

The fact that Google Voice apps have been banished by Apple from its App Store is a bad decision that has taken on gigantic proportions, and is drawing outrage and disgust from app developers. Many are thinking about giving up on the iPhone platform altogether. But […]

apps-final-2The fact that Google Voice apps have been banished by Apple from its App Store is a bad decision that has taken on gigantic proportions, and is drawing outrage and disgust from app developers. Many are thinking about giving up on the iPhone platform altogether. But who is to blame? AT&T, Apple or Google?

Apparently I’m in the minority, but I believe that AT&T has less to do with the decision to kick out the Google Voice-related apps (including the rejection of the official application by Google). Furthermore, I might be the only one to think that there is a corporate poker game going on between Apple and Google, with apps for Google services taking the place of poker chips. Yesterday, it was alleged that AT&T was to blame. I had a tough time buying into that line of argument, and so did John Gruber, who writes the highly regarded Daring Fireball blog. Then yesterday evening, Gruber, who in my books is one of the top bloggers on all things Mac, posted an update saying it was AT&T.

Well, so much for my speculation. A reliable little birdie has informed me that it was indeed AT&T that objected to Google Voice apps for the iPhone. It’s that simple.

In other words, Apple kicked out Google Voice Apps at the behest of Ma Bell. Later on last night, when I saw the TechCrunch team, we argued about who was to blame. They have pointed the finger at the Dallas iPhone Boys.

Jason Kincaid and Mike Arrington from TechCrunch debated with me — using my own argument, no less — that Google Voice turns Google into an MVNO and that is what makes AT&T scared of it. But if that is indeed the case, then Google Voice should have been booted off BlackBerry devices running on AT&T. And that is not so.

I believe that AT&T has become a piñata in the high-stakes war being waged by Apple and Google. Why do we believe that these two companies are not in competition with each other? Is it because Eric Schmidt sits on the Google Apple board? This battle between Google and Apple is going to get very ugly — as it should. Both companies have pinned their futures on smartphones. The sad part is that as of now, Google needs access to the iPhone more badly than the iPhone needs Google or Google Voice.

My arguments aside, the blame game has spilled over from the blogs into the mainstream press.

“What it comes down to is AT&T’s turf,” said Gene Munster, a senior research analyst at the investment firm Piper Jaffray. “It shows that contractually, Apple has agreed to keep apps that would hurt AT&T’s business out of the App Store, regardless of who developed them.”

Thanks, Munster, for repeating what blogs were saying yesterday, but without a shred of additional information.

Anyway, today I decided to check with the folks at AT&T. Their response was pretty standard, though they changed their stance a little and said that all apps-related decisions are taken by Apple. Now we all know that’s not always true. After all, in the case of the SlingPlayer, Ma Bell changed its user terms of service to restrict the use of mobile video apps, and when the howls of protest reached a crescendo, AT&T backtracked, and Sling’s app came to the App Store but worked exclusively over the Wi-Fi network.

That past behavior is what makes it easy for folks to believe that AT&T is to blame for the current fiasco. As a result, AT&T’s current statement is only going to put the company deeper in the hole. I think they — and by that I mean AT&T’s senior management — have to make a stronger statement than that. They are not doing themselves any favors by being coy and cryptic. I know it’s hard for many of us (starting with me) in Silicon Valley to think logically about Ma Bell, given its history, but unlike others, I am happy to give AT&T the benefit of doubt. Are you?

  1. My iPhone 2G is nearly falling apart and I’m resisting getting 3G S just because of AT&T.

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    1. You should resist because they have a shitty network. I think that is a legit gripe. I refused to use it because of those reasons. Instead i use it over the WiFi

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  2. Om, I was one of several people to point this out on your last post, but let me repeat: AT&T cannot ban Google Voice from the Blackberry platform. It has no mechanism for doing so.

    There is no central point of distribution for Blackberry applications as there is for the iPhone. So far as I know there is no kill switch for individual applications on the Blackberry, as there is for Android and iPhone – and if there is it would shock consumers and alarm business customers to discover that AT&T could selectively disable applications that they had chosen to download and install from third parties. That would be far more serious than blocking people from downloading the app in the first place.

    AT&T can certainly tell RIM not to preload Google Voice on new devices. It could ask RIM not to list Google Voice in Blackberry Appworld. But Google would still have plenty of other ways to distribute the app. (As it happens, Google Voice is not listed in Appworld yet.)

    In theory AT&T could pressure RIM into refusing to ‘sign’ an application digitally, but even that process only applies to certain APIs.

    Again, I am not saying that AT&T is to blame for this. I am just pointing out that the fact that you can get Google Voice on other AT&T smartphones is irrelevant. Those platforms are more open than the iPhone.

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    1. Jason,

      Fairpoint, but as you know Blackberry has bent over backwards to accommodate the carriers and in this case they will be happy to put the kill switch on any application using the OTA. Also, they have more control since they are a server centric product anyway.

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      1. Om,

        (1) As I said, so far as we know there is no killswitch for individual applications on a Blackberry. If there is, the justification for a killswitch on all platforms is to enable operators to disable malware that threatens to take down the network. Using a killswitch to disable a legitimate application that a consumer had chosen to download would be unprecedented. (See how Jeff Bezos apologized for deleting content that wasn’t even legitimate.)

        (2) “they have more control since they are a server centric product anyway”. Like 80% of Blackberry purchasers in the last quarter, I am a consumer, not a business customer deploying BES. Please explain how RIM has more control over my Blackberry than Apple does over an iPhone.

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      2. Jason,

        If you are using email on a Blackberry (and not BES with a company), it is going through RIM’s servers – no matter what carrier. On the iPhone (as with all other smartphones except RIM), you are connected directly to the provider (well, directly via the carrier’s network).

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      3. HSK,

        Not necessarily. I have an unlimited data plan and use a third-party email client. My email does not go through RIM’s servers.

        But even if it did, how would that give RIM the power to delete Google Voice from my Blackberry?

        Jason

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    2. Setting aside what AT&T can or cannot ban, the average iPhone user is much more likely to use a particular app than a comparable BlackBerry user, if only because the App Store is so much more ingrained into the iPhone ethos.

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      1. Blackberry users were downloading and installing apps from all over the Internet long before iPhone was even announced to the world. The concept of a closed, tightly-controlled, single-place app store with a gatekeeper is what is so ingrained in the iPhone ethos.

        Sounds like Mr Golson needs even his comments to be proof-read and fact-checked by Gigaom staff.

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  3. The Blackberry issue is a red herring. See Jason Devitt’s comment above. AT&T can’t ban an app from Blackberry devices — at least not directly. There’s no centralized way to get apps onto Blackberry devices. It is, for the most part, an open platform. The iPhone is a 100% closed platform, which is why these types of applications can be blocked from the App Store. AT&T would have to essentially hack into your Blackberry and delete the application against your will. Imagine the backlash. Even Apple isn’t retroactively deleting Google Voice apps from iPhones. They’ll continue to work for people who already bought them. Application banning is only effective for iPhones because without Apple’s blessing, there is no way to install an application. They hold all the keys.

    AT&T is being disingenuous in their responses:

    AT&T does not manage the App Store – and we are not involved in the approval process for apps in the App Store.

    They may not have employees babysitting the process, but they undoubtably have a legal hook in Apple that allows them to force Apple to yank apps that use excessive bandwidth or harm their business model. We’ve seen it happen with tethering apps, and apps that use a lot of bandwidth, and now telephony apps that threaten AT&T’s revenue streams.

    That, plus Gruber’s willingness to put his sizable Apple-pundit reputation on the line to vouch for his source makes it almost certain that AT&T was behind this.

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    1. “That, plus Gruber’s willingness to put his sizable Apple-pundit reputation on the line to vouch for his source makes it almost certain that AT&T was behind this.”

      Sure Mark and that is why I have been digging up information furiously. I totally respect John and I wouldn’t have otherwise followed up for more information. That said, I will stand by my opinion.

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  4. Om, I was one of several people to point this out on your last post, but let me repeat: AT&T cannot ban Google Voice from the Blackberry platform. It has no mechanism for doing so.

    There is no central point of distribution for Blackberry applications as there is for the iPhone. So far as I know there is no kill switch for individual applications on the Blackberry, as there is for Android and iPhone – and if there is it would shock consumers and alarm business customers to discover that AT&T could selectively disable applications that they had chosen to download and install from third parties. That would be far more serious than blocking people from downloading the app in the first place.

    AT&T can certainly tell RIM not to preload Google Voice on new devices. It could ask RIM not to list Google Voice in Blackberry Appworld. But Google would still have plenty of other ways to distribute the app. (As it happens, Google Voice is not listed in Appworld yet.)

    In theory AT&T could pressure RIM into refusing to ‘sign’ an application digitally, but even that process only applies to certain APIs.

    Again, I am not saying that AT&T is to blame for this. I am just pointing out that the fact that you can get Google Voice on other AT&T smartphones is irrelevant. Those platforms are more open than the iPhone.
    Sorry, forgot to add great post! Can’t wait to see your next post!

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  5. If this is a poker game between Google and Apple, Apple should fold before their hurt themselves even more.

    Removing apps like Google Voice, something many people badly want, only hurts the iPhone platform. Not having a great app like that males the iPhone less attractive. Apple is hurting the iPhone, no protecting it.

    As a fanatical iPhone user, if Apple continues these shenanigans, I am actually considering jumping back over to the BlackBerry world, or maybe Android. Apple can tout how many apps they have in the App Store, but of they keep on destroying developers like they did to Voice Central and GV Mobile (and many other before this) they will lose the developers that have made the App Store so great. Already my favourite iPhone developer, Polar Bear Farm, is quitting the platform because of Apple’s stupidity.

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    1. Will,

      How many people want Google Voice. Last I checked it is not even properly available to all the people in the US. Why don’t we re-edit your comment and say: all early adopters want Google Voice app on their iPhone.

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      1. Very true Om, I suppose it is not a mass market application yet since it isn’t even publicly available without an invite. I am from Canada and although I have it, can’t really use it since the random US number I have provides no benefit.

        This issue is really more than Google Voice though. It is basically a warning shot to all iPhone developers saying, “We will kill you at any moment – without a proper explanation.”

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  6. One more thing. Regarding AT&T, why in the world would Apple give them so much say in how the iPhone is handled? I highly doubt Apple is bending over backwards for them, everyone needs to remember that the iPhone is sold all around the world, NOT just in the US. Up here in Canada I don’t need AT&T deciding what apps I am allowed to use!

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    1. And that proves my point… this is an Apple and Google battle and Ma Bell has got nothing to do with it.

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      1. Om, have to respectfully disagree. Google Voice erodes SMS and voice revenues, and the executives at AT&T absolutely despise Google. They spend millions just to smear the carrier (see: Scott Cleland), and disagree with them on everything from white space devices to network neutrality. They have every motive in the world to limit Google’s reach.

        That said, questions remain as to why Apple doesn’t pick better sandbox friends. :)

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  7. Apple uses software to lock people into hardware platforms. That’s why ITMS exists.

    They have been doing this for years (long before the iPhone).

    If you try to compete with Apple on major strategic functionality on their own platform they will do whatever they can to squish you. On the Mac that meant copying your software and using non public hooks into the OS to compete against you. On the iPhone they just refuse to distribute your app.

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  8. i hope run apple’ iphone dies quick death in next few years and Andriod /moblin rules the market …..developers are sick of apple dictatorship and lockin

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