The App Store approval process has always been mysterious, slightly ridiculous and mildly infuriating. But with the summary execution of Google Latitude as well as every Google Voice app, it's finally gone too far.
Until this past week, Google's been the most privileged developer for the iPhone outside of Apple itself. I mean, Google Maps and YouTube come baked into the phone. Hell, Google even gave the iPhone voice search—a more powerful version, no less—before it delivered the feature to its own OS, very obviously using private APIs that would've likely resulted in a swift kick in the arse for any other developer.
Yet here we are, Apple has rejected not one, but two Google apps that would deliver major new features to the iPhone, for reasons that are so obviously tripe it's insulting to even our non-exceptional intelligence. A Google Latitude app would confuse us? Really? Because it would "use Google to serve maps tiles"? Wait. Isn't one of iPhone 3.0's major new features that it can use Google Maps inside of other applications? So like every app can use Google to serve maps tiles. I admit, though, Latitude is a really big word. What does it even mean? That is pretty confusing. Maybe they should call it, like, Google Stalker.
What happened with Google Voice is worse. Google didn't elaborate on the reason Apple gave for rejecting its official Google Voice app six weeks ago—and presumably, Google had more success wringing it out of Apple than most developers. Hours before Google broke the news, the developer of GV Mobile—a solid third-party app for Google Voice— said that it was being pulled from the App Store for "duplicating iPhone features." Then every other Google Voice application was silently killed too. Even though, reportedly, Apple's Phil Schiller personally apologised when GV Mobile initially ran into problems getting approved months ago, and it'd been sitting pretty in the store since then. Oh, and there are tons of other apps that duplicate the functions of dialing and sending text messages.
John Gruber at Daring Fireball says Google Voice was nuked by AT&T, "it's that simple." It's not the first time AT&T's put a hit on apps: NetShare, the tethering app was yanked (though it clearly never should've been approved in the first place), and Skype and SlingPlayer streaming were crippled so that they only worked over Wi-Fi. The difference between those situations and this one is that in those cases, there was, at least nominally, a greater good for users: Limiting those apps protected people from the possibility of AT&T's fragile, already busted-ass network completely collapsing under the weight of millions of phones streaming tons of data. And, you can still actually use Skype and Sling apps, albeit in a slightly constrained manner.
Google Voice, on the other hand, poses no such mortal danger to the network. It only uses a tiny bit of data at the very beginning of a call to set it up, and text messages sent through the service would be infinitesimally small scraps of data (not to mention, there are other immensely popular apps that already send text messages as data). You still use your AT&T voice minutes when you're on a call using Google Voice. And, for whatever reason, AT&T's fear is about Google Voice on the iPhone, since the app is available for BlackBerry on their network.
The situation crystallises our worst fears about Apple's dictatorial App Store. Users aren't being protected from bad things or from themselves here. Even though it seemed ridiculous to us, when apps with objectionable content were blocked or booted before the ratings system was in place, it was in the interest of some paradoxically lazy but over-protective parent somewhere out there. But the only thing being guarded is some ephemeral long-term interest of AT&T against the devaluation of phone numbers and the ability to easily use any phone at will. Not only is Apple hurting users in the service of AT&T by denying them innovative new features, they won't even bother to come up with a good excuse. If they're going to lie about it, they could at least make the rationale believable.
It's obvious Google's not happy about it either—and not just because Google exec Marissa Mayer's deleted tweet pointing to a satire piece about Google deleting Apple from its search results, since it "duplicates a lot of the functionality of other sites." If everything was copacetic Google wouldn't tell the world Apple shut down their applications. (And if the alternative web apps were all that great, Google wouldn't make native apps to begin with.) Whatever the causes, there is now definitely a rift between Apple and Google.
It's a sobering reminder of what Apple's total control over the iPhone platform really means. For the first time, it's denying people exciting new features and possibilities, without even a semblance of benefit or concern for users. Maybe it's a catfight with Google. Maybe AT&T finally found a clause in its contract that didn't make them Apple's bitch. Either way, it's just depressing.
A year after we said we still need the iPhone app black market, nothing's changed. To wit, GV Mobile's available on Cydia right now. We know the App Store is Apple's exclusive domain, and playing in their space has its tradeoffs, but the implicit trust is that whatever Apple does that might seem ridiculous or weird, it's ultimately trying to create a better experience for users. That's just not the case here, taking the App Store approval process beyond cryptic and infuriating into something that's actually toxic for users. Since it's crossed that line, our App Disapproval Watch starts now—it ends when Apple finally cuts this crap out.