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Distinctions without differences: Apple's inconsistent app store rejection policies

Sang Tang

I admit, I was one of those to pile on ol' Ma Bell as the culprit for keeping the Google Voice app (don't I wish that was a real iTunes link) off the App Store. Restrictions on Skype and the SlingPlayer app on the iPhone had conditioned me to believe that the "game changing" iPhone had, well, a completely different set of rules applied to it by AT&T. While many in the tech community continued to jump atop the dog pile, in which AT&T was at the very bottom, Apple ran the ball back the other way without anybody noticing.

Apple's response to the FCC's questions covers several areas -- including the fact that it acted alone without AT&T's consultation -- in rejecting not yet allowing the Google Voice app. Almost as striking as Apple's admitted culpability, however, is its rationale for it, which smacks of odd logic and damages the spirit of the App Store.

In short, Apple states that it rejected "continues to study" Google Voice because, in its current form, the app "replaces the iPhone's core mobile telephone functionality and Apple user interface for telephone calls, text messages and voicemail."

While the iPhone is more than the sum of its parts, the phone portion of it is arguably the least compelling when compared to other features. Out of the box, the iPhone comes with several apps pre-installed. And, based on their placement at the foot of the home screen (as well as Steve Jobs' Macworld proclamation), Apple views the iPhone as "an iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator (Safari and Mail)." But the advent of the App Store and the third party apps that arrived with it further reinvented a device that had already reinvented the entire tech market. If the iPhone wasn't already viewed as a computer-first, phone-a-distant-second device, it certainly took this form after the App Store.

Taken at face value, Apple's rationale for rejecting Google Voice also means that YouMail [iTunes link], TextFree [iTunes link], and Skype [iTunes link] should be rejected as well. As Mike noted yesterday, YouMail could serve as a replacement for Visual Voicemail, TextFree could supplant the iPhone's SMS client, and Skype could do both, albeit in a different and slightly limited capacity.

And, while we're at it, other apps should be rejected as well, as they too could "replace" the functionality of the iPhone's other core features. Let's kick out mBox Mail [iTunes link], for despite its Hotmail and Windows Live Mail-only limited audience, it could potentially replace the iPhone's built-in Mail app. Simplify Media's Simplify Music 2 [iTunes link] should also be outlawed. Because of its ability to stream your entire iTunes library on demand, it could potentially serve as a replacement for the built-in iPod app.

The list is endless, as are Apple's application approval and rejection inconsistencies.

To a degree, Apple's rationale for rejecting the Google Voice app assumes that a) there already exists, or there's a strong potential for, a large Google Voice user base and that b) this base will overwhelmingly choose Google Voice over the native phone app on the iPhone. But neither of these are matters of fact, and we won't know if those outcomes are likely while the native app remains in limbo. At least Apple, AT&T and Google agree on the fact that most of the Google Voice functionality is available via the web browser on the iPhone -- just not all of it.

The wording of Apple's argument for rejecting continuing to study Google Voice, an issue that it is still "pondering," certainly leaves the company some wiggle room to approve the app pending changes. Or, Apple could take other routes. Like the podcast downloading feature that was later added in an OS update, one potential avenue for Apple to take is to integrate Google Voice functionality in the iPhone's native phone app. Obviously, some changes may need to be made to comply with AT&T's restrictions, and every feature may not make it in.

Whether, and at what speed, anything occurs will likely depend on public pressure, which we in the collective tech community can serve to channel and focus. We'll proceed with caution, and not take our eyes off the ball.

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