Just when you thought the FCC’s investigation of the wireless industry couldn’t get any stranger, TechCrunch reports that the Commission has sent letters to AT&T, Apple, and Google inquiring about Apple’s recent decision to reject the Google Voice app from the iPhone App Store.
It’s been over two years since the original iPhone was launched, but it seems the FCC still doesn’t get it: the iPhone is very clearly a closed platform — a prototypical walled garden — and Apple has the final say on what applications users can install. When you buy an iPhone, you’re not simply buying a piece of hardware, but actually a package deal that includes software, hardware, and a wireless contract. Is this anti-consumer? 26 million consumers don’t think so. The iPhone 3GS, the latest version of the phone, is selling so fast that Apple’s CFO says they can’t make enough to meet demand!
Of course, the iPhone model isn’t for everyone. I, for one, don’t own one because I’m an obsessive tinkerer and prefer a phone that’s as open as possible. But not everyone shares my preferences. As mentioned above, over 26 million iPhones have been sold since June 2007, so openness clearly isn’t make-or-break for a lot of consumers. Who knows, maybe some people actually trust Apple and like the comfort of knowing that every app they can get comes with a seal of approval from Cupertino.
The FCC’s letter to Apple demands an explanation for why Google Voice was rejected. If Apple’s explanation doesn’t satisfy the FCC’s criteria — which, by the way, are entirely unclear — then what? Will the FCC force Apple to accept Google Voice? Say what you will about Apple’s app store track record, but the prospect of federal regulators having the final word on which applications smartphone owners can install hardly seems pro-innovation. The FCC can’t even figure out how to run its own website!
In some ways, the iPhone has perhaps been too successful for its own good. It’s so popular that many consumers seem to no longer view it as just another product but instead as an item to which they are entitled. Thus, bureaucrats and Congresscritters in search of political points are making a big fuss over the fact that the iPhone isn’t everything to everyone. Why can’t it be wide open? Why isn’t in available on every carrier nationwide? Why is it so expensive to purchase without a service contract?
The answers to these questions lie in the rational self-interested decisions made by Apple and AT&T. The iPhone exists not just to make consumers happy (which it’s been exceedingly successful at doing), but also to make money for Apple and AT&T. And what’s wrong with that? Both firms arguably took a big risk on the iPhone, with Apple putting big bucks on the line to develop it and AT&T accepting an unprecedented arrangement with Apple to hand over a sizable chunk of wireless revenues.
Rewarding penalizing Apple and AT&T’s iPhone gamble with stricter regulations may make some iPhone owners happy in the short run, but it will also make phone developers wary about taking iPhone-esque gambles in the future. Why invest hundreds of millions to hopefully concoct the next big device if the price of success is political predation? (See Barbara Esbin and Berin Szoka’s paper, Should the FCC Kill The Goose That Laid The Golden iPhone, for more on this).
As we often say, if you don’t care for the iPhone’s App Store, get another phone! There are dozens of smartphones out there that compete with the iPhone. The Palm Pre, LG Versa, Samsung Omnia, and HTC G1 are just a few notable examples.
Want a phone that’s wide-open? Try the G1 — its Android OS is open source and even comes in an unlocked flavor that’s designed for developers. If you love Google Voice, then try a Blackberry — unlike the iPhone, Google Voice works great on Blackberries.
The FCC should stop wasting its time on futile attempts to make already-competitive markets even more so. Instead, the Commission should be focusing on how to free up the airwaves, most of which remain out of reach of innovators because of outdated rules.