Apple denies rejecting Google Voice for iPhone

Apple tells FCC it's 'pondering' app; AT&T says it played no part in the dustup; Google, mum

In responses to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) inquiries about Google Voice, Apple today denied that it has rejected the application, AT&T said it played no part in Apple's iPhone application review process, and Google asked the agency to redact its answer about Google Voice's App Store status.

One media watchdog group welcomed the FCC's demand for answers, and said that the replies from Apple and AT&T prove that the two collude in determining which applications make it into the App Store.

"The FCC's inquiry into Google Voice has ripped back the curtain on the wireless market and revealed AT&T's secret veto power over applications on the iPhone that offer consumers voice services over the Internet," said Ben Scott, the policy director of Washington D.C.-based Free Press, in a statement Friday. "AT&T has been caught with its hand in the Apple jar."

Apple, however, told the FCC that it hasn't denied Google's submission to the App Store.

"Contrary to published reports, Apple has not rejected the Google Voice application, and continues to study it," Apple said in its letter to the FCC, which Apple posted in its entirety on its Web site. "The application has not been approved because, as submitted for review, 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."

Three weeks ago, the FCC launched an inquiry into reports that Apple had rejected Google Voice for the iPhone, and that the company had also removed similar software that had previously been approved for the App Store.

As part of that investigation, the FCC sent letters to all three companies involved: Apple, Google, and AT&T, which is the exclusive mobile carrier for the iPhone in the U.S. In those letters, the FCC asked the firms to explain their actions, and in particular asked Apple and AT&T whether they collaborated -- and if so, how -- in the App Store review process.

The FCC had not posted the replies from AT&T and Google on its document database as of Friday night, but Engadget obtained copies, and published them online.

For its part, AT&T denied that it had a hand in the Google Voice decision. "AT&T has no role in Apple's consideration of Google Voice or related applications," said AT&T in its response today. In the past, AT&T has also denied involvement in the App Store approval process.

AT&T, however admitted that it has talked to Apple at times about specific iPhone applications, which in some cases were later revised before being accepted. "AT&T has had general discussions with Apple about optimizing the technical criteria that Apple uses to evaluate iPhone applications in order to minimize congestion on our wireless network," the carrier said.

AT&T spelled out several examples, including the music-streaming Pandora application and a live-streaming application from MobiTV and CBS, that were the subject of discussions between it and Apple.

The FCC also sent Google a letter on July 31, asking it to provide Apple's reason for Google Voice's reported rejection, and to describe any communication between Google and AT&T or Apple. However, Google asked for, and was granted, confidentiality by the FCC; its response to that question was completely redacted in the version of the document made public today.

In its redaction request, Google said that the discussion it had with Apple "constitutes commercial data 'which would customarily be guarded from competitors.' The redacted material relates to business and operations of Google, warranting protection from disclosure by under the Commission's Rule."

Caught in the Google Voice brouhaha were several small companies whose applications were yanked from the App Store by Apple in late July, including some that had been sold for months on the iPhone's only sanctioned online mart. Apple acknowledged the trio -- GVDialer, GV Mobile and VoiceCentral -- in its response today, saying that they fell under the same umbrella of concerns as Google Voice.

"The Google Voice application 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, i.e., disabling Apple's Visual Voicemail," said Apple. It cited Google Voice's SMS feature as a problem, and said it was also worried about how the application grabbed contacts from the iPhone. "The iPhone user's entire Contacts database is transferred to Google's servers, and we have yet to obtain any assurances from Google that this data will only be used in appropriate ways," Apple added.

Kevin Duerr, the chief executive of Durham, N.C.-based Riverturn, the developer of VoiceCentral, said last month that Apple claimed his company's software duplicated features of the iPhone, the same explanation Apple apparently has given Google. Frustrated at Apple's refusal to explain in more detail why it pulled VoiceCentral from the App Store, he raked Apple over the coals in a series of blog postings and interviews, including two with Computerworld.

Today, Duerr dismissed Apple's responses. "I don't [know] what they are claiming because their answers don't make sense," said Duerr in a blog post Friday night. "And, frankly, we are calling BS."

Apple said it was still "pondering" Google Voice and studying "its potential impact on the iPhone user experience." The company also confirmed AT&T's contention that Apple alone is responsible for Google Voice's uncertain status in the review process.

Both companies admitted that their contractual agreement forbids Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications from reaching the App Store unless AT&T agrees. "From time to time, AT&T has expressed concerns regarding network efficiency and potential network congestion associated with certain applications, and Apple takes such concerns into consideration," Apple said.

The popular Skype VoIP software, for example, has been accepted for the App Store, but that product, as well as others, has been crippled so that it works only through a Wi-Fi hotspot, not over AT&T's data network. Skype's use of Wi-Fi only prompted Free Press to urge the FCC to look into Apple's and AT&T's VoIP practices back in April.

AT&T seemed most concerned about revenue and network traffic issues in its reply to the FCC today. "Both parties required assurances that the revenues from the AT&T voice plans available to iPhone customers would not be reduced by enabling VoIP calling functionality on the iPhone," admitted the carrier. "AT&T's wireless service agreement prohibits subscribers from engaging in uses that cause extreme network capacity issues or interference with the network."

The letters to Apple, AT&T and Google are part of a wider-ranging inquiry by the FCC into such things as pricing and the exclusive arrangements between handset makers and mobile carriers.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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