Google, Apple and AT&T: Enough Blame to Go Around for Everyone


While most of the blogosphere was waiting with “baited breath,” as Jason Kinkaid put it this afternoon, I’d been on the phone all day trying to track own folks from Google, the FCC, Apple, TMobile, AT&T and Skype to get the scoop on what was going on from all angles.

Yeah – rough afternoon for someone who doesn’t consider himself a journalist. Sometimes, when you have a deep-seated curiosity on something, you just can’t help yourself from picking up the phone and trying to find out.

Just to catch you up on the story, in case you’re not familiar with the timeline, here are a list of links that should bring you up to speed.

The Story Thus Far:

In a nutshell: Google Voice app was denied access to the iPhone App store. Apple blamed AT&T. AT&T blamed Apple. The FCC got interested in whether anti-competitive behavior was taking place. USA Today points out that Google did the same thing to Skype with the TMobile G1 / Android limitation.  TMobile blames Google.  Google blames TMobile. Google then says “it was a technical limitation, not a commercial limitation.

That catches you up.  Dig in!

So I spoke with representatives and insiders from most of the aforementioned companies, and of course many folks spouted the various company lines being talked about now, but several spoke freely as long as I identified them simply as “sources close to the matter,” so assume all quotes and viewpoints in this post qualified as such.

I had three major questions when I took a look at the USA Today post about the FCC:

  1. How is Android limiting to Skype – is it a technical limitation or an arbitrary limitation that prevents Skype from being an end-to-end VoIP solution?
  2. Why is this an FCC issue and not a Justice Department or FTC issue?
  3. If these are commercial limitations, who’s truly responsible (in both instances: Google/TMobile and Apple/AT&T)?

What is the FCC’s Interest in This Debacle?

image[64]Thankfully my email address is easy enough to find on the web, and a few sources found me straight away.  One individual with information pertinent to my questions regarding the FCC emailed me this afternoon.

“It’s important to understand the roles of the Department of Justice versus the FCC in matters like this,” he said. “The DoJ deals in enforcement, where as the FCC can open dialogues with the various corporations involved, encouraging them to fall in line with generalized FCC policy.”

It makes sense, but puts in a vastly different perspective the gravity of the ‘investigation’ the FCC is conducting presently.  The way it sounds and is portrayed by most pundits (in particular, the USA Today and the Wall Street journal) is that there will be hard and fast consequences and repercussions for the guilty party.

Read All the Responses to the FCC:

In essence, though, it seems to be from what I understand, for the purposes of opening a clear and honest dialogue not clouded by public relations concerns with the goal of getting policies of all involved in line with FCC goals (which, incidentally, are heavily influenced by Google’s stated goals in the whole 700mhz bandwidth auction).

As an interesting aside, I’ve received some eyes-only FCC filings from a few of the parties involved that show that this investigation and series of issues have been actually an ongoing dialogue for going on three years.  In essence, the potential for anti-competitive actions by both Google/TMobile, and Apple/AT&T have been going on for quite a while.

Why is it “Skype Lite” instead of just plain “Skype” on the G1 Android?

image[61]Of course, the debate is pretty conclusively settled as to why Google Voice isn’t on the iPhone now since Apple has pretty much admitted that it “really is that evil,” and absolved AT&T of any fault in blocking the app from the iPhone app store.

There’s a difference between the technical and the commercial realities.

I had an opportunity to speak to developers for all the various platforms involved, including Android and the iPhone, and two distinct pictures emerged.  Developers for the iPhone describe their development experience as pretty much shrouded in mystery, with very little feedback from Apple / AT&T as to what may be accepted and what will be rejected.

Android developers, on the other hand, had a better understanding of what the platform they were developing for was capable of and more optimism that their app would be accepted, but were still acutely aware of the difference between platform limitations and artificial limitations created by business concerns.

 image[67]“Google basically has a bunch of switches you can flip on and off, and it’s unclear who controls it,” said one prominent Android developer. “TMobile and Google pass the buck back and forth. It ends up where developers like us basically say ‘we’re not going to take a chance on an app with full featured functionality when it may not work or end up rejected.’”

This is a situation I can intimately identify with.  Back in ‘99-‘00, I worked for Nokia, pioneering the limits of the still newborn SMS protocol by designing the specifications by which ringtones were transferred to and from the handset.  Very often, we as developers would get one story from the biz-dev department at the major carriers, another story from the infrastructure guys at the carriers, and then a completely different set of results from our independent testing.

Obviously, this sort of atmosphere is limiting innovation. Who do we lay the blame (and thus the public pressure) on, though?

Who’s butt do I hafta kick to get a VoIP app in this gin joint?

Who’s to blame for what?

Apple’s Response

Apple says in it’s response to the FCC: “Apple has not rejected the Google Voice image[68]application […] the application has not been approved.” They go on to say that they’re still in very deep ‘study’ of the application, because “it appears to alter the iPhone’s distinctive user experience by replacing the iPhone’s core mobile telephone functionality and Apple user interface with its own user interface for telephone calls, text messaging and voicemail.”

They continue in their response by mis-characterizing what Google Voice does, saying that it “replaces Apple’s Visual Voicemail by routing calls through a separate Google Voice telephone number that stores any voicemail, preventing voicemail from being stored on the iPhone.”

This, of course, isn’t true.  The app itself doesn’t do anything like that, it simply provides an interface to the Goovle Voice system, which itself can replace, or not replace at the user’s preference any number of services not limited to the iPhone.

Apple goes on to say that they acted alone without AT&T’s approval or behest in their “failure to approve the app,” although they admit that there’s a provision in the relationship between AT&T and Apple to not allow VoIP applications.

Those are the important points (at least germane to this discussion).  There are a lot of other bits and pieces that could be gone over with a fine tooth comb, as several bits of intentional obtuseness are displayed, as well as selective memory on the answers to many of the FCC’s question.

Bottom line: Apple claims rejected the Google Voice app without consulting AT&T, but they knew that if they had approved it, AT&T would demanded it’s removal due to it breaching the terms of agreement between Apple and AT&T.

AT&T’s Response

image[69]Apple was kind enough to post their entire response to the FCC for the public. AT&T, on the other hand, released a press statement summarizing their position.

The crux of AT&T’s response: “…let me state unequivocally, AT&T had no role in any decision by Apple to not accept the Google Voice application for inclusion in the Apple App Store. AT&T was not asked about the matter by Apple at any time, nor did we offer any view one way or the other.”

They go on to say that they don’t “block consumers from accessing any lawful website on the Internet,” though I’m pretty sure that wasn’t really at question at any point, and sounds like what someone would say if they didn’t understand exactly how mobile phone apps were different from websites.

They also show a fundamental lack of understanding on how Google Voice works, which makes me wonder if they just picked a clueless lawyer to write this statement, or if Apple could have pulled the wool over their eyes in terms of approving Google Voice if they wanted.

Bottom line: AT&T didn’t have a hand in rejecting Google Voice’s iPhone app, per se. They did set up, in their original partnership agreement with Apple that no VoIP calls could originate or terminate on an iPhone (without permission), thus creating an understanding that it wouldn’t be kosher to even bring to the network for approval.

Google’s Response

image[67][4]Most of the interesting stuff in Google’s response to the FCC was redacted, including what it was that Apple said exactly when they informed Google that the app wasn’t approved.

They did provide some responses on what the approval process looks like for the Android platform, though, and here’s how they describe it:

There is a limited automated analysis that is performed on all uploaded applications at the time of submission, to identify technical issues that would prevent installation by the user and to notify the developer of these issues.

This automated process does not screen or reject applications on the basis of content or functionality.

This pretty and open picture of the Android marketplace, however, doesn’t jive with the picture that developers on the bleeding edge painted for me.

I was pointed to, by several developers, the post put out by Andy Rubin on the Google Public Policy blog today preceding the release of the FCC letter:

Here are the facts, clear and simple: While the first generation of our Android software did not support full-featured VoIP applications due to technology limitations, we have worked through those limitations in subsequent versions of Android, and developers are now able to build and upload VoIP services.

While individual operators can request that certain applications be filtered if they violate their terms of service, USA Today is wrong to say that:

"Google’s explanation would seem to suggest that T-Mobile requested the block on Skype, but the carrier says that’s not the case. "T-Mobile has not asked Google to block that service," says spokesman Joe Farren, referring to original Skype."

As I said earlier – if this was clearly communicated with anyone from the beginning, it wasn’t the developers I talked to (and given the type of work these particular developers do, well, let’s just say they should have been given specifics).

Instead, it seems like Google communicated in veiled language what would and wouldn’t work and who mandated it as such.

Bottom line: Google, either in fear of fouling up a relationship with TMobile or out of tacit agreement with TMobile’s policy of no end-to-end VoIP on the Android G1 device stripped out the requisite technology to make a full version of Skype and other VoIP applications work properly.

So Who’s To Blame Again? 

Did we ever establish that in all this investigation?  It’s safe to say that everyone’s to blame.  Google and Apple are the new kids on the block, and they’re playing on the telco’s turf.  Given Google’s ultimate goals with Android, and Apple’s unmitigated success in selling the iPhone, neither company wants to run afoul of their telco partners.

So – they kowtow.  They don’t offer the telco’s a chance to say no to new applications that push the boundaries of telephony. They establish arbitrary and capricious systems and standards that make sure that either developers can be rejected for reasons so arcane and random that Kim Jong-Il would smile or make developers feel so uncomfortable developing full versions of their applications that they just don’t.

Is it anti-competitive? Sure.  Is it smart business? Maybe in the short run. Does it put caps on innovation? Absolutely.

Ultimately, those will be the findings of the FCC, if they’re able to read between the lines as much as the rest of us who’ve taken time to read these documents.