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FCC barks at Apple for silencing Google Voice

Was it personal or just business?

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Apple's rejection of the native iPhone client for Google Voice has attracted attention from the FCC, which has written to each of the players involved asking them to explain themselves.

Google Voice is a telephony service that offers (invited users) discounted international calls and free text messaging, integrated through a native client on Blackberry and Android devices. But the service is relegated to a web app on the iPhone thanks to Apple's indebtedness to its exclusive US carrier AT&T: a relationship that the FCC now considers a threat to a competitive marketplace.

The FCC has kicked off its investigation with three letters: to Google, Apple and AT&T, asking key questions about who made the decision to reject Google's iPhone application and why.

Of Google the FCC letter (pdf) asks what Google Voice does, and what other applications Apple has approved from Google which could impinge on the AT&T business model. More interestingly the FCC also asks for details of the approval process for applications on Google's Android platform, presumably in the interests of comparison, but it's a comparison which isn't going to make Apple look good.

The FCC is less gentle with AT&T (pdf) - blankly asking if the operator was involved in the decision to reject Google Voice, and if the operator's involvement in such decisions is enshrined in contract. The FCC would also like to know if any other devices support a native Google Voice application, but betrays its suspicions with: "Please explain whether ... Google Voice is disabled on the iPhone but permitted on other handsets, including Research in Motion’s BlackBerry device".

With Apple the regulator is equally blunt (pdf): "Why did Apple reject the Google Voice application for iPhone and remove related third-party applications from its App Store?" Questions about AT&T's involvement in the decision-making process are also asked.

The replies will probably be confidential, so we're unlikely to see the complete decision-making process, but just seeing someone asking is remarkably cathartic even if it took Google's involvement to kick the FCC into action.

The FCC's reference to third-party applications includes such gems as GV Mobile, a native Google Voice client developed by Sean Kovacs which was happily selling in the iTunes store until the official Google app got rejected and GV Voice got pulled off the shelves by Apple. Not only that, but Mr. Kovacs now can't provide support to the application (at least not through iTunes) so some people are asking for refunds, which he is expected to provide.

TechCrunch reports that Apple feels justified in retaining its 30 per cent cut and leaving developers to make up the difference, maintaining the company's trademark derision for iPhone developers.

All this is a huge PR win for Google: not only does Apple look like it's colluding with AT&T, but Google manages to come out of it looking like the injured party putting Apple well ahead in the race for Mircosoft's slipping most-evil crown.

It seems not long ago that Microsoft was cool: fighting the good fight against the Big Blue (IBM) to free our desktops from restriction. But with power came a new nick-name and "The Beast from Redmond" rapidly became the company everyone used, but hated. The smart money has, until now, been on Google taking over, thanks to the chocolate factory's disregard for customer privacy and general arrogance. But if Apple can get itself a decent nickname the field is still wide open regardless if the FCC follows through on its action. ®

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