Was Apple’s Partnership with ATT the Worst Business Decision Ever?

I finally got around to trying Qik, and I’m really impressed with it.  It’s too bad I have an iPhone which, unlike so many phones, won’t allow users to stream live video.  At least I can now upload video to Qik over the 3G network.  I guess that’s something.  You see, us iPhone users have to take comfort in small victories.

One day they’ll build a bad business decision hall of fame.  The featured display will be the Apple/ATT exclusive iPhone partnership.  People will flock to see how something that could’ve been so good turned out so bad.  Courses will be taught, degrees may even be awarded, on iPhone Launch Disaster Avoidance.  “Yes sir, I got my ILDA from Stanford back in 2017, magna cum laude.  I started out in the MBA program, but I wanted to go where the jobs are.”

This Apple/ATT business fell off the tracks when we found out that our dream phones can’t send MMS messages.  Nor can you use them as a wireless broadband modem, the way I used my Blackberry years ago.

Since then, we’ve seen a parade of new apps and improved features.  For other phones.  Google Latitude, Google Voice, the SlingPlayer app, Qik, etc.  If you can think of it, there’s probably an application.  For other phones.

Meanwhile we wait.  We wait for someone at Apple and/or ATT to come to their senses and call bullshit on what has become the biggest technology failure in memory.  We wait for other carriers to save the day.  We hope the government will step in and restore order.

Mostly, we hope that one day our iPhones will do what other, less heralded, mobile phone can already do.  We bought and re-bought our iPhones to be at one end of the technology curve, and we ended up at the other.  Oh, the iRony.

At this point, we don’t know who to blame.  Is this Apple being paternalistic and arrogant?  Is it ATT being hapless?  Or is it some combination of the two?  I don’t know how to allocate all the blame, but that’s OK because there’s plenty to go around.  Here’s what I do know.  When the iPhone and the ATT partnership was launched, there is no way the executives involved intended things to turn out like they did.  This phone was supposed to change the world.  The fact that it had the impact it did in spite of the multitude of problems says more about the cult of Apple and the design of competing handsets than it does about the execution of the iPhone launch.

Consider where the iPhone- and the horde of developers writing for it- would be if just half of the subsequent failures had not occurred.  The race would be over.  Only the Apple/ATT failfest is keeping the other handsets in the game.  I bet people at competing companies give thanks for ATT’s network infrastructure (or the lack thereof) every day.

So while I can’t allocate the blame, it doesn’t look to me like anyone is getting what they wanted out of this deal.  Apple is shackled to a bad network that can’t handle nineties-era features and/or its misguided desire to over-control the user experience.  ATT is the punching bag for those who want their iPhones to realize their potential, and has turned people who bought out of their contracts to become ATT customers into a shipful of rats looking to jump at the first opportunity.

And then there are all the iPhone owners.  People who try to be excited and loyal in the face of daily reminders of all the things their phones can’t do.

Everyone is losing in this game.  Someone needs to change the rules.

Apple’s War Against the iPhone

There’s been a lot of talk today over the responses Google and ATT sent to the FCC in response to the FCC’s inquiry into various App Store rejections, most notably the rejection of the much desired- by me and others- Google Voice app.

The short answer is that ATT did not request or require the rejection, which was my scenario number one, back when this rotten business started.  As I noted then:

[It may be] that Apple decided on its own to ban the Google Voice apps for some inexplicable Apple reason, which seems to be what ATT would like us to conclude.  This could be accurate, given that other phones on the ATT network have Google Voice apps.  If so, the torchy mob should immediately descend on Apple’s castle and demand a straight forward explanation.  Don’t buy the duplicative feature canard.  All kinds of duplicative apps are allowed.  It’s only the one that would most improve the iPhone experience that is not.

By all means, the torchy mob should now descend on Apple’s castle and demand that Apple destroy whatever Frankenstein is barring the door to the App Store.  But, wait, we are talking about Apple here.  The company that makes the (zealously) beloved (by a few) Mac.

I have always been amazed and annoyed by the free pass that Apple tends to get when it does something customer-unfriendly:

Why does Apple get a pass when it tries to control our audio, and now video, experience? Everything about the iPod is designed to force you to use iTunes as a gateway to your music. And to sell some downloads, of course. If Microsoft did something like this, all the Apple heads would scream bloody murder.

Well, today it was confirmed that Apple did something very customer-unfriendly.  And it didn’t take long for people to start handing out that free pass.  In a post discussing these latest developments and generally describing Apple’s App Store review process, Harry McCracken, who is usually spot on in his tech analysis, let the Apple flu get the best of him:

Apple is so obsessive about user interfaces and its control thereof that I take it at its word that this is why it hasn’t approved Google Voice. (If Microsoft said it objected to a third-party app on the grounds of interface consistency, it would be a different matter.)

A pass and a swat at Microsoft, in the same sentence.

In fairness, he goes on to say he doesn’t like Apple’s decision, but come on Harry.  No matter what the reason (and we’ll probably never know the real reason, since Apple guards its motives like a State Secret), this is a bullshit denial of another app everybody wants.  As I said the other day, why is it that the greatest phone on earth gets more and more crippled every day?  Usain Bolt is the best sprinter on Earth, but break his legs and make him carry Steve Jobs on his back, and my 3 year old could beat him.

Phones are like sports.  What happens in practice really doesn’t matter.  It’s all about what happens during the game.  And Apple is royally screwing up this game.

It’s time to take back that free pass, and make Apple understand that there is a limit to customer loyalty.  If we have to vote with our feet and pocketbooks, so be it.

Otherwise, Apple will eventually win the inexplicable war it is waging against the iPhone.  And if that happens, no one wins.

Well, except maybe Google.

Apple Faces a Revolution at the Crossroads

It will be interesting to see if the rising number of denunciations and protests over Apple’s banning of Google Voice apps will have any effect.  During last night’s podcast, I said I thought Apple was an extremely arrogant company and asked my podcast mates if they could think of an example where Apple reversed a decision due to popular outcry.  We couldn’t think of any good examples.

Meanwhile, the protests continue.

Today, Mike Arrington quit the iPhone, expressly as a result of the Google Voice debacle.  I applaud Mike for doing that.  I don’t often- or even usually- agree with him, so if he and I are on the same side of an issue, we must be right.  Stated simply, it’s foolish and unnecessary for Apple to side against its customers and Google.  If people are forced to choose between Apple and Google, Apple may be surprised at how many puppies run to the other side of the room.

And there’s more at stake here than meets the eye.  While the App Store/Google Voice thing is important on its own, I believe it is a barometer for Apple’s future.

Do the right thing, and everyone falls immediately back in love with all things Apple.  Stay the inconsistent and illogical course and this issue could be the beginning of the end of Apple’s golden era.  You can’t call yourself a hero and act like a villain.  You can’t be the people’s choice if you don’t choose the people.

One interesting subplot to all this:  Google wins either way.  Think about it.

Harry McCracken believes Apple may come around.  I hope he’s right, but I’m not so sure.  The price cut Harry mentions was a nice, but isolated gesture.  I suspect Apple views the wall it has erected around the App Store as more sacred- and more profitable- than what amounted to a glorified coupon (recall that the credit Apple handed out was good for future, marked up, purchases).  To reverse course now on the Google Voice decision- even though it would be the smart and just move- would set the stage for more second guessing of Apple’s erratic app approval/rejection process.  And we know that the one thing that Apple loves almost as much as money is control.

The most amazing thing about this whole app approval brouhaha is how easy it could be fixed.  All Apple has to do is three simple things:

1. Be at least semi-transparent.  Tell people what is going on.  In life and business, a little explanation goes a long way.

2. Tell the truth.  Don’t speak in riddles or half-truths.  Don’t let ATT take the blame if the blame is not theirs and toss them in the grease if it is.  And don’t hide behind the duplicate functionality canard.  If you simply want to control the experience to the detriment of customers, Google or whomever else, just have the stones to say so.

3. Be consistent.  Inconsistency is the great motivator of unrest.  Apple has been the model of inconsistency as far as the App Store goes.

That’s how to make it better.  But it could also get worse.

Lately we have been seeing more and more signs that Apple is struggling with the jailbreaking thing.  First came the warning that jailbreaking could result in terrorism.  Now we read an official support article warning folks about the risks they assume by choosing the apps they want to install, rather than letting Apple decide for them.  I wonder if the great irony that it is precisely Apple’s iron grip on the app approval process that is driving people to jailbreak their iPhones is lost on Apple?

So for now Apple tries to educate us away from jailbreaking.  What’s next, when that doesn’t work?  Will Apple start disabling jailbroken iPhones?  Or perhaps take a page from the record industry’s book of bad strategy and try to litigate the cat back into the bag?

As you can see, this issue is bigger than just our desire to have Google Voice apps on our iPhones.  Apple and its customers have come to a crossroad, and we need to at least try to point Apple toward the right path.  We need to continue to express our concerns, displeasure, questions, etc.

We have looked out for Apple, now Apple needs to look out for us- by siding with the legitimate desires of the customers who made Apple what it is today.

And who will make it what it will be tomorrow.

How I Read the ATT Comment on Google Voice

Here’s how I read the latest on Apple and/or ATT’s absurd and utterly annoying rejection of Google Voice apps.

The ATT statement doesn’t say that ATT- or the requirements of ATT’s agreement with Apple- is not the reason why Google Voice apps have been banned.  It simply says that ATT does not manage the App Store and is not part of the approval process.  There are four ways to interpret this:

1. That Apple decided on its own to ban the Google Voice apps for some inexplicable Apple reason, which seems to be what ATT would like us to conclude.  This could be accurate, given that other phones on the ATT network have Google Voice apps.  If so, the torchy mob should immediately descend on Apple’s castle and demand a straight forward explanation.  Don’t buy the duplicative feature canard.  All kinds of duplicative apps are allowed.  It’s only the one that would most improve the iPhone experience that is not.

2. That the agreement between Apple and ATT requires, either directly or indirectly, that apps that might take money out of ATT’s pocket be excluded.  This would be consistent with the wi-fi-only Skype limitation.  The rub here is that we’d be talking about SMS charges only, and there are tons of apps- Beejive for example- that already allow you to send free text messages.

3. That Apple decided to ban the Google Voice apps because it knows that ATT’s network is crappy and fears that any significant additional load will grind things to a halt.  This could also explain the Skype limitation, and the crippled SlingPlayer (though nothing can explain Sling’s ridiculous $30 app money-grab).

4. That Apple decided to ban the Google Voice apps because it gets a share of the money that ATT makes, and Apple wants to squeeze an extra dollar out of the faithful.  I would find this the most irritating.

It may just be that ATT sees the writing on the wall as far and the iPhone exclusive gravy train goes and is tired of getting kicked around every time someone has a bad iPhone experience.  Maybe ATT decided to try its hand at posturing by press release, and is feeling out Apple in the first round with these vague and non-inflammatory jabs.

We may never know the real story.

What we do know is that we want our Google Voice app, and our Google Latitude app, and all kinds of other apps that have not and may not see the light of day.  The more we run into these walls of nonsense, the more likely we are to go rogue and jailbreak our iPhones.  I’ve never seriously considered doing that.

Until now.

One Bad Apple Does Spoil the Whole Bunch of Apps

So I write a happy, hopeful post about how Apple is going to save the tablet space and maybe even break Amazon’s stranglehold on the e-book market.  Then I walk all aglow out to the garage for my nightly treadmill run and The Wire watching, certain that the tech world was a wonderful place.

A couple of hours later I come back, all sweaty and tired and sad about the beat down that Bunny Colvin took at the end of Season 3, and read that Apple is removing Google Voice apps from the App Store.

Are you shitting me?  People have made careers out of crapping on Microsoft for making people spend 10 minutes downloading and installing a third party browser.  Where is the outrage here?

Look, I too have worried about Google taking over the world, and all of our data with it.  Shoot, it was just the other day that I finally capitulated to Google, and admitted that eventually it will contain my entire life.  That was after I fell in heavy like with Google Voice, but before I realized how cool and useful Google Latitude (another app that Apple has apparently squashed for no legitimate reason) can be.

Either Apple has lost its collective mind or it is once again doing ATT’s dirty work.  I’m guessing it’s the latter.

Here’s the thing, Apple.  It’s not ATT or any other carrier that put the iPhone where it is.  It’s the loyal, evangelical, tech-loving customers, many of whom really want to use Google Voice, Google Latitude and all kinds of other apps that ATT- the same ATT that can’t get it together enough to accommodate MMS and tethering- might not like.  Oh, and the developers, who write the apps that give Apple such a commanding lead in the apps race.

If ATT’s network can’t handle the demand of the greatest mobile phone ever made, then why in the world did Apple give ATT the exclusive for so long?  And doesn’t that agreement require ATT to have some level of network capacity?  Maybe I’m missing something, but this seems backwards to me.  If ATT can’t (or won’t) play ball, then let the other carriers in the game so there can be network sharing.  And if it’s not ATT, then I hope someone at ATT says so, so the torchy mob can run howling back to Apple’s door.

This is messed up.

I don’t care that Apple and/or ATT nixed the SlingPlayer app.  Sling’s ridiculous $30 app price makes me pull against them, and I have a Slingbox.  I don’t care all that much that I can only use the Skype app via wi-fi.

But Google?  Not only can you not survive on the internet without giving Google its propers, but even Google, who is bent on internet domination, gives almost all of its stuff away.  Google ought to start charging ATT every time an ATT customer uses Google’s network, and see how that works out.

Apple needs to immediately reverse course on this, and accept not only the third party Google Voice apps, but also Google’s own Voice and Latitude apps.

One caveat: I am assuming that Google isn’t going along with this nonsense or suppressing its objections in some harebrained scheme to give Android devices some perceived advantage. Outside of that, I think there should be a general uprising until Apple comes to its senses and, if necessary, tells ATT what’s what.

In sum, this is stupid and needs to be fixed.


Morningstar Launches an Uninspiring iPhone App

Morningstar, the company that, via Bank of America, CarMax and Western Union stock recommendations, recently surpassed Jim Cramer as the single biggest source of my epic stock market losses, has a new iPhone app (iTunes link).  The free app offers investing ideas, real-time quotes, analyst research, financial news, Morningstar ratings, company profiles and more.

imageNotwithstanding all my losses, I am a long-time and more or less satisfied Morningstar subscriber.  Everyone has lost money in the stock market over the last year or two, and at least Morningstar isn’t brokering the stocks it recommends.  I want some sort of stock market analysis, and I still think Morningstar is less bad than just about any other source.

Morningstar’s web site is full of data, analyst reports, portfolio tools and news.  At the moment, I am pretending I never heard of the stock market, but when my head gets above sand level, Morningstar is my primary investing idea and analysis source.

The iPhone app, however, is no great shakes.  The app does not allow access to all of Morningstar’s premium content or the stock portfolios and watch lists you have set up on Morningstar’s web site.  In fact, the app is not even tied to your Morningstar account.  As a result, there’s very little this app does that you can’t get in another, more mature financial app.  There is a dearth of content- and there’s no reason for Morningstar to be so stingy, given the massive amount of resources on its web site.

On the plus side, you can get access to portions of the Morningstar analyst report for stocks and mutual funds, quotes and the Morningstar rating.  If I wasn’t a Morningstar subscriber who is used to having all of the premium content accessible, I would probably feel a little better about this app.

A premium app with “enhanced functionality” is promised for “later this year.”  That’s very close to perfectly vague.  If Morningstar releases a premium app that syncs with your Morningstar paid account and allows access to a lot more Morningstar content in an iPhone-centric design and has the good sense not to charge paying members for it, they’ll have a winner.

Until then, I’d look elsewhere for my iPhone financial information.