So much virtual ink has been spilled within the tech sphere over the Google Voice/Apple App Store fiasco, and yet I still can't quite wrap my head around how I feel about the whole thing. Certain Silicon Valley types, tech bloggers, and diehard fanboys and Apple haters have shouted from their laptops about Apple's - or is it AT&T's? - "evil" business practices ever since all GV-related wares were pulled from the App Store last week.
And yet, I'd dare say that most of the world's iPhone users couldn't care less about the whole thing if they even know what "A Google Voice" is to begin with. As some commenter somewhere pointed out on some blog I read over the weekend, Google Voice is still an invite-only service, so it's not like Apple went and yanked a public utility out of the hands of all iPhone owners. I got my GV invite last week, and the gates to GV Nirvana do seem to have been at least semi-opened as of late, but Google still controls who gets an invite - it's not a come one, come all setup. And much like Apple's App Store review process, Google doesn't tell the public who's getting those invites, or when, or why.
Beyond that, Apple, AT&T, and Google are all corporations in the business of making money. They all function in a Capitalist society under laws and by-laws designed to foster corporate growth and reward companies who can tap into consumer desires. Apple gets a lot of grief for doing things their own way - a very tightly guarded, private way that often smacks of elitism and telling, not giving, customers what they want, at least to certain people. Google gets less grief than Apple these days, but has amassed an insane amount of capital and influence by more or less controlling how people find information on the Internet and seeking to monetize as much of that information-seeking process as possible. Some would go so far as to call Google an "online ad shop" before they'd call them a "search engine."
Which isn't to say that Google is "just as evil" or "as much to blame" as AT&T or Apple for this whole drama. I, frankly, have no idea why all things GV - or Slingbox, etc, etc - are no longer available to contract-abiding iPhone subscribers when the are available to their BlackBerry and WinMo-toting brethren on AT&T's wireless network. I also have no idea why Apple approved some 900+ apps from a single developer only to then yank them all and revoke his Dev Program license without warning. That is, I get why the license was yanked, but I wonder why Apple approved NINE HUNDRED of his apps before they realized what kind of copyright infringing junk they were putting on their virtual shelves in the first place.
My point is that we've entered a new age of digital entrepreneurship, consumerism, and regulation which probably has some parallels to bygone eras ranging from the Gold Rush of 1849 to the Dot Com Bubble of the late 1990's/early 2000's. The rules are being made up, enforced, and changed as we go, and lots of money is being made, spent, and lost at a head-spinning pace. Not so long ago, when the only cell phone "apps" most consumers knew about lived on carrier decks and carrier decks alone, complaints about and regulations regarding those apps drew a lot less attention from journalists and consumers alike than they do now. There are probably two reasons for that, namely Apple and Blogs. Apple opened the bank vault when it comes to monetizing mobile software, and the Blogs have been there to report on, speculate as to, and complain about the process in real time since Day One.
Apple's approach to their App Store is born out of their approach to everything they do. They control the entire experience, from conception to launch to marketing to post-sale service, and they're so confident that they're offering a winning product that consumers will buy that they don't worry about features they've "missed" or how closed their internal processes are to everyone from journalists to developers. Or, at least, they don't give the outward appearance of worrying about such things - the company's legendary secrecy veils quite a bit of internal debate and angst, I'd imagine, even if said debate and angst ultimately comes down to the decision making of that one dude in the CEO's chair.
So it's no surprise, really, that Apple's App Store approval process has inspired all sorts of outrage and frustration from the same developers clamoring to get their work into the store while praising the power and utility of the iPhone SDK. What's also not surprising is that Apple has approved, disapproved, and yanked many apps both high-profile and low, without offering anything approaching a sufficient explanation for the decisions, and yet consumers keep buying iPhones and developers keep buying Dev Program memberships. In typical Apple fashion, they've made a product that consumers want (two products, really: the iPhone for consumers and the App Store for developers) and so long as they're moving units and generating a profit there's no real reason to change their approach, right?
Except now the Feds are involved. Now Apple has gone and become so successful with the App Store that their black box control over what gets onto that store's shelves might just be definable as unfair trade practices, especially since they're dealing with wireless communication devices, and not "just" computers. I'm no lawyer, so I won't even try to speculate on what aspects of the App Store verge into "Antitrust" and "Monopoly" territory, but it's no coincidence that the FCC opened their investigation last week and Google's CEO left Apple's board this week, right?
And, oh yeah, that CEO, Dr. Eric Schmidt, is and has been a big supporter of current US President Barack Obama. While that doesn't necessarily mean that he had something to do with the FCC "suddenly" deciding to investigate Apple's App Store practices when a Google app got rejected, it is an interesting footnote at the least. One way or another the Federal government decided to get involved, and one way or another Apple and Google seem to be publicly formalizing the growing competitive aspects of their relationship at the same time.
As for AT&T, I don't even know where to begin. Silicon Valley bloggers are having a field day as of late posting screeds with titles like, "Can AT&T Handle the iPhone?" I've even joined the fray a few times based on my growing frustration with my own AT&T service (which I pay for myself) and the fact that unlimited service for the most popular smartphone in America (iPhone) costs 50% more than its nearest competitor (Palm Pre) but doesn't yet include MMS messaging.
But really, it's not like there's a clear villain and a clear (if any) hero in this scenario. All three of the corporate players involved want to make money, even if one of them still clings to "Do No Evil" as their company motto. All three of the corporate players involved exercise black box control of one sort or another over what they offer to consumers, as well: Apple with the App Store, Google with their invite-only services like Google Voice, and AT&T with their service agreements. And those are just examples - search through the terms and conditions attached to Apple, AT&T, and Google's entire range products and services and you'll find all kinds of things that you as a consumer can or can't do just because the company said so.
Honestly, though, that's how it works in a free market society. Right? A company makes a product, you decide if that product holds value for you, and then you buy it or pass on it. I'm no lawyer, but I honestly don't see what jurisdiction the FCC has to regulate what Apple chooses to sell - or not sell - in their private software store. As I read on some other blog at some other point over the weekend, "So I can't buy a Prius at a GM dealership. So what?" By that logic, if you want Google Voice on your smartphone, skip iPhone and get a device that supports GV. Makes sense to me.
I really don't know what the FCC is doing getting mixed up in all of this, and I mean that quite literally. I'm guessing it has something to do with the broad meaning of "telecom" when it comes to government rules and regulations. I'm also guessing that it has something to do with Google's position/strategy regarding an Open Internet, new FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's history as an aggressive technology executive, and the various links between those two factors, perhaps including Dr. Schmidt's relationship with President Obama. When Google says they want a free and open Internet just remember that the more stuff you do via a Web browser and not a closed, native app, the more opportunities Google has to sell ads against your search and browser-based activities.
There is, of course, much more to the FCC's newly growing role in the regulation of consumer-facing wireless products and services, including their investigation into handset exclusivity deals. Advocates of exclusivity reform say that deals that keep cutting edge products exclusive to major carriers - like iPhone on AT&T - unfairly prevent customers in smaller markets from having access to said products. In other words, if you live in the country where you can't get AT&T service, the government should step in to ensure that your local carrier can offer you the iPhone.
Still, I'd like to see Joe Consumer decide this one. While it bugs me that Apple dictates what software you can and can't install your my iPhone (unless you jailbreak it), it would bug me much more if the government stepped in to decide the same. In a perfect world Apple would at least make their App Store approval process more transparent. But even as it is now, if you don't like the way Apple does business you can buy your phone from someone else; it's not as though the iPhone is the only device in town that makes calls, sends texts and emails, browses the Web, and so forth.
So why should the FCC step in to tell Apple what to do? Seriously, if you know, tell us in the comments. I'm not 100% on this one, but the more I read up on the matter the more I keep thinking, "This sucks, but if the government starts deciding what products stores are allowed to sell, that will suck more. Much more. I'd rather just have the option to get fed up with Apple (or Microsoft and many others before them) and stop buying their products."
What say you? Does the FCC have any business meddling in the App Store business? Does Apple have the right to decide what winds up on the shelves of their store without any explanation owed to consumers or developers? Is the whole thing a non-big-deal that's been blown out of proportion by Silicon Valley bloggers? Sound off in the comments!