Looking at Skype/Google Voice from AT&T's Point of View

Apple's created quite a kerfuffle by approving and then pulling third party Google Voice apps from the App Store, and by not approving Google's own iPhone client at all.

A lot of that kerfuffle is along the lines of how dare Apple or AT&T stop me from exercising my [lack of] god(s)-given right to use this technology on my iPhone?!?!? IF I WANT TO USE MY IPHONE TO MAKE "FREE" CALLS THEN YOU'VE GOT SOME NERVE STOPPING ME!!!!!

Being the smartass contrarian that I am, I thought maybe I should speak for the little bad other guy, which is AT&T. At the very least, it's worth a little time examining the issue from another viewpoint, even if there's a bit of the inevitable involved.

So let's start with those evil dillwads that are surely at the heart of this problem, AT&T. At this point, it seems fairly certain that AT&T requested or required Apple to pull these apps. Who are they to do so? Well, they're the folks that paid for most of your iPhone, that's who.

That indignation can usually be counted on to come to the fore, especially with the legions of entitled jack-be-numbnuts who love nothing more than to hear the sound of their own braying.

Without AT&T's heavy subsidies, you're iPhone would be costing you $500 or $600, give or take a few score of dollars. The company has done so not out of the goodness of its blackened, corporate heart, but rather in the pursuit of green, corporate profits. Pay Apple a subsidy up front and reap the reward over the long-haul in the form of higher data fees, expensive SMS plans, and high-end voice plans.

It's a formula that has worked, and one that has served to bring millions of new users to AT&T's wireless network.

And this is where the conflicts and contradictions enter the picture. The iPhone is a small computer, not just a phone. Better still, it's a small, nay (my apologies for that "nay", but I am watching Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog in the background, and Bad Horse's singers were narrating the letter...), a tiny computer with a somewhat open development platform that lets us do whatever we want with it (as long as Apple approves, of course).

When we are denied that, we get indignant. That indignation can usually be counted on to come to the fore, especially with the legions of entitled jack-be-numbnuts who love nothing more than to hear the sound of their own braying.

The iPhone also brings together a special confluence of interested parties that makes for extra-fertile ground for crops of controversy.

You have Apple as a hardware maker, Apple as the App Store provider and gate-keeper, AT&T as a wireless carrier who is also in the role of tiny-portable computer Internet-enabler, and us, the merry band of iPhone users wishing to gallivant from here to 1 Infinite Loop at our convenience.

Clearly we, the user, have a desire to make "free phone calls" with Skype or Google Voice. After all, we're paying for the bandwidth! Clearly Apple as a hardware maker couldn't care less if we do so. Heck, will it get you to buy an iPhone? Then go for it, dude!

Apple as the App Store provider and gatekeeper doesn't care, either, especially if you find a third party client that costs you money (and therefore makes Apple 30%). Apple as the gatekeeper, though, has to worry about its partner companies, specially AT&T, and thus the apps get pulled.

Which brings us to AT&T: This interested party has a specific interest in keeping us from using our bandwidth to make "free phone calls." Yes, we're paying for the bandwidth, but if you think it's that simple, you're a lackwit.

AT&T is already working hard to keep up with the data bandwidth used by iPhone users, and the cost of the networks is paid for not just by bandwidth fees, but by the voice plans that go along with them. If every iPhone user were to switch to Google Voice or Skype on the iPhone to make their phone calls, the iPhone would cease to be a profit center for the company.

Nothing is really free, after all, and if the current rate structures made it impossible for AT&T to make a profit on the iPhone, those rate structures or the subsidy system would have to change. In a world where every iPhone call is made through Google Voice or Skype, we're looking at surcharges for data, more expensive data plans, or some other form of fee system.

Of course, some secondhanders will argue that not everyone will use Google Voice or Skype, and that therefore they should be allowed to do so. All that really just means they're looking for a free ride -- as long as someone else is paying for their "free phone calls," they're happy.

My belabored point is that someone has to pay for the bandwidth used by these phone calls.

So what's AT&T supposed to do? Blithely watch while costs go up and profits evaporate? In addition to its lack of logic, it would result in a shareholder lawsuit faster than you could say "class action."

What's Apple supposed to do? Watch their awesome product become such a drain on its partner carriers that no one wants to pay Apple a subsidy any more?

From my perspective, any supposed controversy over this issue is as false as the indignation of supposed Mac fans who want to run Mac OS X on their home-built PCs, even though the development costs of Mac OS X are heavily subsidized by the cost of Apple hardware.

Yeah, that's right, I'm throwing a tangential dig at Psystar into a column about AT&T.

In any event, the only way that voice-over-IP makes sense for the iPhone is in a market with unsubsidized phones with users who are paying heavily for data bandwidth, and by heavily, I mean even more heavily than the already hefty data fees AT&T is extracting from us.

That said, an argument can be made that voice-over-IP should be allowable on WiFi connections only. That's a different situation with different parameters, the most important being you aren't using AT&T's bandwidth to make the call, so they shouldn't have much of a say in it.

The BlackBerry will do that out of the box, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs had originally said his company would allow such uses. Even more interestingly, as of this writing, Skype is still available on the App Store.

What's that about? I don't know, but if this is an AT&T thing going on with Google Voice, I'd be worried over at Ebay's Skype offices.

Lastly, of course, there's always the chance that this whole issue isn't about Apple being forced to protect AT&T, but is rather indicative of a policy shift at Apple pitting the iPhone maker against Google. It is possible that Apple is concerned about keeping control of the dialing experience, or who knows what else.

If that ends up being the case, please disregard the previous 1,123 words.