Dropping the ball.

When the iPhone was introduced in 2007, a lot of people scratched their heads and wondered aloud why exactly Apple was partnering with AT&T. Well, Verizon passed on it, believing it to be a failure in the making (and cementing their place in the annals of ‘Bad Business Decison-Making History’ in retrospect), and that left two smaller carriers on different mobile network protocols. So it seemed AT&T was the only choice.

There were a lot of feelings of contsternation, but eventually everyone accepted it and it was laid to rest. Mostly. The phone became a huge success, a cultural phenomenon, and a business coup for Apple, and AT&T rode it all the way to the bank, putting up massive subscriber numbers every quarter. With the advent of the App Store in the summer of 2008, Apple added another layer of complexity to the equation, as independent developers were allowed to touch the vaunted platform (officially) for the first time outside of the quasi-illegal (depending on your definition of the DMCA’s nature and whether or not it was applicable in this case) jailbreak option.

One of the things that a lot of people wanted to see what a decent VoIP option. What application would be the first to offer such functionality? Skype arrived in early 2009, but was limited to Wi-Fi only for calling, although chat and other features were available on 3G. Truphone was also an entrant into this arena, but with less recognition among the general public. Google Voice stepped up, and was believed to be a strong contender, but this week Apple rejected it summarily from App Store contention, and upon further investigation, it was brought to light that AT&T was directly responsible for the action. Many are positing that although the move was contentious and viewed as poor judgment (based on the fact that Skype is available, for instance) it was to be expected, as Apple and AT&T share a relationship based on an understanding that the subsidized price of the phone will be recouped over time with a wireless plan and other options. Allowing a user to operate outside of this arrangement would cannibalize AT&T’s profits.

And finally, here’s a lovely notion that I can’t even begin to wrap my head around. Today Macworld published an article stating that “Apple has told the U.S. Copyright Office that modifying the iPhone’s operating system could crash a mobile phone network’s transmission towers or allow people to avoid paying for phone calls”. Apparently, the jailbreaking process, which Apple has opposed since day one, as it allows experienced users access to the baseband radio, poses a threat to AT&T’s network infrastructure. The article goes on to state that the filing also mentions that “jailbreaking affords an avenue for hackers to accomplish a number of undesirable things on the network”.

What’s that Penn and Teller show I’m thinking of right now? Oh, right.

There’s no way – no way – that I’m going to believe that a hacker with a jailbroken iPhone poses a greater threat to AT&T’s network security than an equally experienced hacker with a laptop and a wireless broadband card does. Yet there is no mention of this kind of security worry. Read that first statement again:

…modifying the iPhone’s operating system could crash a mobile phone network’s transmission towers or allow people to avoid paying for phone calls.

That last part is very telling, isn’t it? AT&T’s not really worried about securing network facilities, because if they were, they’d be sweating every able hacker with a wireless card in his/her laptop. But they definitely don’t want people subverting the constraints of the money machine they’ve put into place with iPhone voice and data plans, because that would severely hurt their bottom line.

Moreover, they’ve crippled other apps in the past (see Sling Player for an example) that would have used the network to stream large amounts of data. They know the network can’t keep up with the iPhone user base. It’s been proven time and again (SXSW, CES) that they dragged their heels into the upgrade process and now are panicking and dropping usability features for users to protect their coffers.

Apple even acknowledges this, albeit in a very tongue-in-cheek way, as evidenced by the comments from this year’s WWDC keynote regarding both MMS and tethering. Surely they can’t be happy with the fact that the carrier they partnered with for this game-changing device has hamstrung progress at every step of the way. AT&T is basically, at this point, riding out the severely limited 3G network’s capabilities as they prep for 4G. But we’re all left to wonder: will Apple still care by the time they get there?

I hope not, because I love my tech for what it does – not what it should be able to do, in the hands of a more capable provider. 

Author: Seth Clifford

I'm here for the open bar.