FCC probes Apple's rejection of Google Voice for iPhone

Asks Apple, AT&T and Google what they know, and when they knew it

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) late Friday launched an investigation into Apple's rejection of Google Voice for the iPhone, and the removal of similar software from the App Store.

In a letter sent to Apple, the FCC asked the company why it turned down Google Voice for the iPhone and pulled several other Google Voice-related programs from the iPhone's only sanctioned online mart. The FCC also sent similar letters to both AT&T -- Apple's exclusive carrier partner in the U.S. -- and Google, asking both firms to provide more information on the issue.

The FCC's letter (PDF download) asked Apple whether it rejected Google Voice and dumped other applications on its own, or "in consultation with AT&T," and if the latter, to describe the conversations the partners had.

In other questions, the FCC asked Apple whether AT&T has any role in the approval of iPhone applications, wants the company to explain how Google Voice differs from any other VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) software that has been approved and requested a list of all applications that have been rejected and why.

Finally, the FCC asked Apple to explain its App Store approval process, something that some developers have said is so shrouded in secrecy that they don't know the rules. "What are the standards for considering and approving iPhone applications?," the FCC letter asked. "What is the approval process for such applications (timing, reasons for rejection, appeal process, etc.)? What is the percentage of applications that are rejected? What are the major reasons for rejecting an application?"

"This is great news," said Kevin Duerr, the CEO of Durham, N.C.-based Riverturn Inc., the developer of VoiceCentral, one of the Google Voice-related applications that Apple yanked from the App Store this week. "Obviously, who knows where this will go, but we're all for that inquiry," he said late Friday. "This is the kind of investigation that needs to be done anyway on Apple's policies in the App Store."

Duerr applauded the FCC's demand for the specifics of Apple's approval process. "It's precisely what developers want. I can't speak for all developers, of course, but all we want is a level playing field. I can accept, no, I can understand 'My house, my rules,' but I don't understand what the rules are."

This week, Duerr took Apple to task for pulling VoiceCentral, and in an interview yesterday raked the company over the coals for the paucity of information about why it removed his company's software from the App Store.

"I know that they're Apple, and they love their shroud of secrecy, but I don't understand it in this line of business," Duerr said Thursday. "What's the harm in telling developers why an app has been rejected or pulled from the App Store? Why wouldn't you say: 'Here's why.'"

In another letter, the FCC asked AT&T (PDF download) whether it played a part in the rejection of Google Voice, as well as to explain whether its customers who use the BlackBerry are allowed to run Google Voice on their devices.

In the past, AT&T has denied that it has a hand in the App Store approval process; BlackBerry users who are AT&T customers can install Google Voice.

To square the circle, the FCC also sent a letter to Google (PDF download), asking the company to provide Apple's reason for Google Voice's rejection and to spell out any way that iPhone owners can access some or all of that application's features.

The letters to Apple, AT&T and Google are part of a wider-ranging inquiry by the FCC into exclusive arrangements between handset makers and mobile carriers. The U.S. Department of Justice has also reportedly begun investigating how carriers and device makers structure exclusivity deals, a move that could bar agreements like the one AT&T has with Apple and the iPhone.

But although Duerr welcomed the FCC's investigation, he had no illusions. "What's the end game here?" he asked. "If I win this David and Goliath battle, David doesn't really win. Google will come out with its own iPhone app, and I'm sure it will be free and great.

"We won't win. But if I can stand up for the development community, and be a mouthpiece for developers, then that's great," Duerr said.

Apple, AT&T and Google did not reply to requests for comment about the FCC's actions late Friday.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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