Under The Microscope

Reading Between the Lines of Apple’s FCC Reply

Three weeks ago the Federal Communications Commission wrote a letter to Apple to inquire about their rejection of the Google Voice iPhone application, and subsequent removal from the App Store of other iPhone applications related to Google Voice.

Apple’s rejection of this app brought up a lot of questions in the community about Apple’s relationship with AT&T and the openness of the platform, and it seems that the FCC had similar thoughts. This was bound to produce something interesting from Apple because, while Apple may ignore most people in the community, they were not likely to ignore the FCC. Today Apple replied to the FCC and made this reply available to the world. Since Apple is usually reluctant to provide any information at all about the App Store, this letter provides an interesting inside look.

Introduction
The beginning of the letter reveals that Apple is justifiably proud of what they’ve achieved with the App Store. This is not directly related to the FCC’s inquiries, but Apple clearly wants to put their reply in context. They note 65,000 iPhone applications, less than three months after they announced 50,000 apps. The platform is certainly not hurting for developers. They also point out that AT&T has no direct say in what applications are available for the iPhone, which was an unusual situation in the US at the time. Those of us who look at the iPhone from a personal computing perspective tend to see it as restrictive, but from a cell phone perspective it’s relatively open, at least relative to American smartphones circa 2007. While I personally believe it needs to be much more open still, this is still an interesting point to consider.

Protection
Next, Apple explains why they have a review and approval process for iPhone apps. They state that they review apps, “in order to protect consumer privacy, safeguard children from inappropriate content, and avoid applications that degrade the core experience of the iPhone.”

These reasons are interesting. The first one, privacy, is completely justified and I won’t spend any more time on it. The next one, “safeguard children”, is much less justified in my eyes. It’s certainly a noble goal, but the vast majority of iPhone users are not children. Restricting what content is available on my phone does nothing to protect children, as no children ever get to use it.

The last reason is the most interesting to me. They state a wish to, “avoid applications that degrade the core experience of the iPhone”. How would an application actually accomplish this? It’s an interesting thought experiment. The iPhone presents a highly restricted environment to applications. Apps can’t run in the background, can’t access files belonging to other apps, can’t prevent the user from quitting them, and in general can’t really do much that’s harmful. If the user isn’t running your app, then you can’t do anything to degrade his core experience. What is Apple afraid of here?

The answer can be found in Apple’s response to the FCC’s first question, regarding why Apple rejected the Google Voice application. This answer starts off with a wonderful piece of doublespeak:

“Contrary to published reports, Apple has not rejected the Google Voice application, and continues to study it.”

In other words, it hasn’t been rejected, it just hasn’t been approved! I can’t fathom why Apple wants to make this distinction, or draw attention to the fact that they often leave apps in limbo for weeks or months without an explanation.

Back to the degraded core experience. Apple talks about how the Google Voice application replaces the standard telephone functionality of the iPhone with Google’s version, which looks and acts differently. Google Voice provides its own system for receiving voicemail, using SMS, working with contacts, and performing other related tasks. In short:

“[Google Voice] appears to alter the iPhone’s distinctive user experience by replacing the iPhone’s core mobile telephone functionality….”

This would be a decent justification… if it were even remotely true.

The fact is, Google Voice can’t replace anything. As I mentioned above, iPhone applications run in a restrictive environment. It is completely impossible for an application to replace another application, or indeed affect it in any way. No, all Google Voice does is provide an icon, a regular application icon like any other, which the user can use if they wish. As with any other iPhone application, if the user doesn’t launch it, it doesn’t run. The user can continue to use all of the normal built-in iPhone functionality exactly as they always have.

It would seem that Apple’s true concern with the Google Voice application is that it “duplicates functionality”. It’s well known that Apple hates applications which duplicate functionality that they already provide. Apple rejected a podcast app because it duplicated the podcasting functionality of iTunes (on the desktop!). They rejected a GMail app because it duplicates the functionality of the Mail app. And now they’ve apparently rejected several Google Voice apps because they duplicate the functionality of the Phone app. But the way they explain it, saying that they work “by replacing the iPhone’s core mobile telephone functionality” is misleading at best, if not an outright lie. They provide an alternative, but do not, and can not, replace it.

Terms of Service
The answer to the third question provides an interesting window on the relationship between Apple and AT&T. It states:

“There is a provision in Apple’s agreement with AT&T that obligates Apple not to include functionality in any Apple phone that enables a customer to use AT&T’s cellular network service to originate or terminate a VoIP session without obtaining AT&T’s permission. Apple honors this obligation, in addition to respecting AT&T’s customer Terms of Service, which, for example, prohibit an AT&T customer from using AT&T’s cellular service to redirect a TV signal to an iPhone.”

Ignoring the question of why it’s Apple’s job to prevent their customers from breaking AT&T’s terms of service, it’s interesting to note just how much this policy is centered on the United States. The iPhone is sold in dozens of different countries and works with dozens of different cellular carriers all over the world. You can be certain that each one of those carriers has different terms of service. Why is AT&T so privileged that their terms of service, and theirs alone, are the ones that Apple looks at when deciding whether to reject or accept any given app? It’s quite likely that people all over the world are missing out on great iPhone apps that their cellular carriers would permit them to use just because AT&T does not permit Americans to use them.

Cluelessness
The answer to the fourth question is just classic:

“Apple does not know if there is a VoIP element in the way the Google Voice application routes calls and messages, and whether VoIP technology is used over the 3G network by the application.”

So let’s see. Apple rejected Google Voice on July 27th. It typically takes at least a week before Apple gives any response to an app submission, so we can assume that Google Voice was submitted on July 20th or earlier. And let’s not forget that Apple says that they “continue to study it” in its supposedly non-rejected state. Apple has been studying Google Voice for over one month now and still doesn’t know if it uses any VoIP technology? Give me a break! Just how are they carrying out this study?

Overload
The answer to that last question is revealed, implicitly, at the end of the letter. Apple claims, “There are more than 40 full-time trained reviewers, and at least two different reviewers study each application….” No problem there. They also claim, “We receive about 8,500 new applications and updates every week….” Also no problem. But what happens when we put them together?

There are 8,500 App Store submissions each week. Each submission gets reviewed twice, so there are 17,000 reviews per week. There are “more than 40” full-time reviewers; let’s give Apple a nice cushion and say that this means 45. Let’s also assume that these reviewers work a standard full-time 40-hour work week1.

With 17,000 reviews per week and 45 reviewers, that means each reviewer performs 378 reviews per week. At 40 hours per week, this is 9.4 reviews per hour, or one review every 6.4 minutes.

Think about that figure for a moment. You put in literally months of work on your product, slaving over it and struggling with the half-baked developer experience. And then, at the end of all that, everything rests on a go/no-go decision from two people who collectively spend thirteen minutes evaluating your months of work.

And Apple shouts this to the world as though we were supposed to take it as a good thing.

Footnotes
1. In reality, Apple being Apple, their reviewers probably work significantly more than 40 hours per week, and thus spend proportionately more time on each review. But even if they worked, say, 80 hours per week, this would only leave 13 minutes for each review, which is still a very small amount of time. It would also means they’re proportionately overworked, and is that really better for the review process?

28 Responses to “Reading Between the Lines of Apple’s FCC Reply”

  1. Hamish says:

    “There are more than 40 full-time trained reviewers”

    And an infinite number of part-time untrained monkeys?


  2. Brian Christiansen says:

    “Apple has been studying Google Voice for over one month now and still doesn’t know if it uses any VoIP technology? Give me a break! Just how are they carrying out this study?”

    I think they mean they don’t know if Google is using VoIP on the Google backend end, not within the app they submitted to Apple. Apple’s essentially saying here, “We couldn’t find any VoIP in the app they submitted, but we can’t vouch for the rest of their service.”


  3. Mike Ash says:

    Brian: One of the things Apple claims they don’t yet know is, “whether VoIP technology is used over the 3G network by the application.” They may well be in the dark about the backend, but they’re not only in the dark about that. It’s clear that they aren’t even looking.


  4. Hamish says:

    Apple’s essentially saying here, ‘We couldn’t find any VoIP in the app they submitted’

    Apple can’t determine whether the Google Voice app uses the Internet Protocol to transport a signal representing vocal audio?


  5. Dave M. says:

    I just have one thing to say about the “safeguarding children” part of this post.

    There are two devices that use OS 3.0 code. One is the iPhone and even though there probably shouldn’t be “children” using an iPhone, children use cell phones. Maybe not a 10 year old, but 15 or 16. Absolutely.

    The other device is the iPod touch. I can absolutely see “children” using iPod touches. So the “protecting children” part of Apple’s review process is very important.


  6. Mike Ash says:

    Dave M.: I’m not sure you understood the point I was trying to make. Nowhere did I claim that children don’t use iPhones, or iPods Touch. My point is merely that most such users are not children, and that keeping kid-unfriendly apps off my phone does nothing to promote child-friendliness. Indeed, Apple already has a mechanism to deal with this that doesn’t require any action on their part: parental controls.


  7. Adam says:

    “Apple has been studying Google Voice for over one month now and still doesn’t know if it uses any VoIP technology?”

    It appears that AT&T doesn’t know either.

    http://www.businessweek.com/technology/ByteOfTheApple/blog/archives/2009/08/apple_google_an.html

    AT&T’s letter also says that it’s not clear from its analysis of Google Voice that it is in fact a VOIP service in the first place: “Based on AT&T’s review of the information available on the Google Voice website, however, it is our understanding that Google Voice is not a VOIP service that enables a user to send or receive voice calls in IP format from a wireless handset…” it is rather…” Rather Google Voice appears to be an umbrella term used to describe a collection of different services that, in the mobile wireless context, Google provides through a browser-based application available on any web-enabled handset…”

    AT&T goes on to hint as to what’s contained in Google’s redacted answer to question 2: “AT&T expects that Google will provide a complete description of Google Voice in response to the letter it received from the Commission and we look forward to learning more about Google Voice based on that response.”


  8. Zandr says:

    Doesn’t the iPhone Developer Agreement require that Google’s answer to Question 2 be redacted?


  9. Mike Ash says:

    Note that, despite Apple’s protests, it’s actually fairly well known how Google Voice and the GV iPhone apps work. The apps simply configure GV’s servers. All of the actual telephony takes place by making normal phone calls to a GV access number. In short, no VoIP at the phone end, normal phone calls on the phone, just to a special number. And in fact GV can still be used just fine on an iPhone without an app, by just accessing the GV web site instead, it’s just not as convenient.


  10. Janet says:

    You may it sound like the US is the front runner in this VoIP banning thing.

    Other countries have been doing it for many many many years.

    http://news.zdnet.co.uk/communications/0,1000000085,39286764,00.htm


  11. Lucas says:

    @Janet: I can’t speak for Mike, obviously, but when he talked about international carriers, I don’t think he was talking about VoIP exclusively, and I don’t think he was implying that every international carrier would allow VoIP. Where I live, I pay for my iPhone Internet traffic by the MB. In turn, my carrier doesn’t care if I use VoIP or tethering, yet I can’t use these apps because AT&T doesn’t like them.


  12. Steven says:

    Of all the app submissions, I would wager that a very large percentage are minor updates to existing apps, small single-purpose or toy apps, and obvious rejects. Have you clicked randomly through the iTunes store? There are a lot of apps in there that you would be hard pressed to spend even ten minutes on.

    Not to mention part-time reviewers.

    And “protect the children?” – are we beating that dead horse again? There’s not even a basic web filter on Safari – any 7-year old could dig up whatever they wanted.


  13. Alex Blewitt says:

    You’ve got a dupe (empty) anchor tag surrounding the text “because it duplicated the podcasting functionality of iTunes (on the desktop!). They” in the post.


  14. Mike Ash says:

    Lucas: Precisely, VoIP was just an example. The major point is that Apple enforces AT&T’s ToS, but not any other carrier’s, as far as we know, even though people around the world end up losing out on useful apps due to a contract they’re not subject to.

    Steven: You make a good point, but I still believe that 6.4 minutes per review is far too little. The review process is seriously broken for various reasons which are widely known, and I think the short amount of time available for each review is at the root of it. Simply reading about what an app does and installing it is going to take up most of that time. Those apps which do merit a longer review aren’t getting it; many apps have found updates being rejected for problems (or “problems”) which existed in the 1.0, for example.

    Alex Blewitt: Thanks for pointing that out, I’ve fixed it.


  15. mark says:

    We don’t know that Apple isn’t also enforcing its TOS with other carriers. This was an answer to a US agency about its relationship with a US carrier, so Apple’s answer leaves it out. So we don’t know.

    As for degrading the core experience, that can happen even without replacing the Apple App. If one alters the underlying data assumptions, then problems can arise if the APIs don’t handle it. Apple’s Phone, iPod, Mail, and Safari apps can be called by other Apps, and their data stores (media, contacts, etc) can be accessed by other Apps. The podcast app created a podcast file store separate from that in iTunes, which could lead to confusion about where are one’s podcasts. This could be handled by allowing the defaults to be changed, but that isn’t in Apple’s APIs today. Something similar can apply for GV with regard to contacts.


  16. mark says:

    Apple needs to hire more reviewers. That said, there are lots of apps that are more or less duplicates from a software code point of view (ebooks, travel guides, games like I Whack, etc.).


  17. rd says:

    “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.”

    The above sentence provides all the clue you need to see that
    Apple is protecting AT&T. If you don’t need AT&T’s voicemail then
    Apple gets a reduced cut of shared profit. It is simple as that.
    It is probably in contract as well.


  18. AdamC says:

    Let’s see whether goog voice can make it to verizon or other smart phones, if it is such a wonderful app.


  19. ms says:

    “In addition, 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. These factors present several new issues and questions to us that we are still pondering at this time.”

    If true, I do not like it and, based upon your comments about privacy above, I suspect you do not either.


  20. Mike Ash says:

    mark: I concede that Apple could be enforcing other carriers’ ToSs. The fact remains that they’re enforcing AT&T’s ToS for the entire world, and if they’re enforcing others’, it means that my choice of apps is being constrained by the desired of Estonian Mobile Telephone, which is quite odd and not that great.

    AdamC: GV is already available on Blackberries on the Verizon network, no need to wait to see. And it’s available on Android, but that’s no surprise at all.

    ms: TechCrunch discussed the contacts issue in more detail here:

    http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/08/21/the-simple-truth-whats-really-going-on-with-apple-google-att-and-the-fcc/

    In short, GV doesn’t upload your contacts, but Apple will do it from iTunes if you check a box, so Apple’s claim doesn’t appear to hold water.

    If Apple were really concerned about apps violating the privacy of users’ contacts database, I have to wonder why there isn’t an “Allow/Don’t Allow” alert for accessing it, like there is for accessing your current location.


  21. James Katt says:

    I totally support Apple on this case.

    Google’s transfer of user’s iPhone Addressbook to its own servers is a privacy violation.

    Google should redesign Google App so that is is more like Comcast’s App. Comcast’s App is readily available. It does much of what Google App does. But it complements rather than replaces the core services of the iPhone. It has a different interface as well.


  22. rd says:

    VoiceMail is one of the highest profit margin product in the world.

    For example, Verizon land line charges $8 per month which
    it costs them 1 cent to provision it. I bet it is even higher for
    cell phone.

    This is what is at stake when google voice comes calling with their free
    product tied to advertisement.


  23. cesjr says:

    “they provide an alternative, but do not, and can not, replace it.” Defacto they do replace it if many users switch to it. Then apple has lost control of the phone and the core experience. They don’t want that. To say they are lying is silly. At most they are dumb – but they’re not. They know exactly what they are rejecting and it makes perfect sense. Apple is going to control and provide certain core functionality. third party apps get the rest. some overlap with apple provided stuff is OK – eg notepad apps But apple wants to keep the core stuff for itself.


  24. Eknath Kadam says:

    “but the vast majority of iPhone users are not children”

    App Store is not just for iPhone, its for iPod touch too, And a huge number of children and teenagers use iPod touch as their music player and nowadays as portable gaming device.

    “avoid applications that degrade the core experience of the iPhone”.

    If you have ever downloaded any app from Android market, you will know what Apple mean by degrading core experience. Most of the Android apps just dont work as advertised. Its frustrating even to try free apps from Android market. Or even if Android market supports returns for paid apps within 24 hours. The kind of crappy apps Android market has, has definitely degraded my core experience of using my Android phone.


  25. kermitology says:

    For those supporting Apple’s “won’t someone please think of the children” stance. That is NOT for Apple to decide. It is the job of the PARENT to filter what is and is not appropriate for their children.


  26. Devotee says:

    I won’t copy and paste this comment from iKeepass developer’s blog, as it’s quite long and should be read in context:

    http://ikeepass.de/bl0g/?p=101&cpage=3#comment-1905

    This application (iKeepass) is another “victim” of Apple’s review process, it was submitted eight months ago(!!) and they’re still rejecting it again and again.


  27. Julius says:

    “but the vast majority of iPhone users are not children”

    Just want to point out that while children might not use you’re iPhone, one does use my wife’s and used my iPod Touch as much as we do. Know, she’s not placing phone calls on it, she got the same dozen-and-a-half or so apps just for her on both devices.

    Granted, children aren’t the direct target for the iPhone, but they are a secondary users of it. Or as is the case for my iPod touch, it’s primarily for her. While I have all my apps on it, we have Playhouse Mickey, Caillou, and other TV shows as well as Mary Poppins, Dumbo and other G-rated movies for trips in the car. Not to mention the many alphabet, math and reading games for use in the restaurant while we’re waiting for food or when mom and dad want to have a few minutes of quiet time after she’s finished her meal.

    My wife and I are the filter of what she views, hears, and accesses as much as humanly possible. The world being what it is, we can’t control everything. Having said that, we appreciate Apple taking extra measures to help filter content. It’s not their responsibility, but it sure helps. For those who don’t see the benefit of a company taking children into consideration, well then you simply must not have children. While there’s nothing wrong with not having children, just don’t be so quick to slam Apple for their efforts.


  28. El Aura says:

    “8,500 new applications and updates every week”
    There are lot of apps at the 1.0 stage, but also a lot who have received numerous updates. I would not be surprised if 50-80% of those ‘8500 new applications and updates every week’ are updates only. Some updates might be substantial, but most will be rather minor and trivial, ie, something that can really be winked through.


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