AT&T (and Apple) is screwing up a good thing



Image courtesy of Gizmodo

I speak, of course, of the iPhone, and in particular, the great App Store that swung open its doors little more than a year ago. As any iPhone user can attest to, it’s a veritable playground of extra functionality that spoils us with every new release. Sure, other cell phones have had applications in the past (and most of them are scrambling to catch up to Apple even now), but let’s face it… they were kludges at best, and few people really used them as a result. The iPhone is clearly a mini-computer that happens to also make phone calls, and the success of the App Store is a testament to why cell phone carriers are nervous about their own little Berlin Wall that’s coming down now, a few bricks at a time.

But make no mistake, AT&T (aka “the Empire”) is striking back, and it’s going to take some great innovation and technology with it if it’s not careful.

The most recent blow came yesterday, as Apple started pulling a few apps that were front-ends for Google Voice (the free service I already raved about awhile back). My favorite was Sean Kovacs’ GV Mobile, which launched back in April after repeated delays on Apple’s end in getting it approved. For $2.99, the app provided a handy dialer that hooked into the Google Voice service, complete with SMS, history and voicemail… and plenty more features were yet to come, but have now been snuffed out by a paranoid AT&T.

While I can’t say I’ve been a huge fan of AT&T over the years, I always felt they got more right than wrong. I initially switched to them from T-Mobile to get the ass-sucky Motorola ROKR, the first attempt to bring iTunes to a cell phone which was a huge failure in terms of usability. Hoping it would get better, I even paid to upgrade to the next model, the Motorola SLVR, which wound up being more of a downgrade, considering I could barely make or receive calls in my apartment because of its piss-poor antenna. (Ironically, a problem that has been again rearing its head in recent months with the iPhone 3G. Our kitchen, in particular, is a wireless dead zone.)

But when Apple first announced the iPhone in January, 2007 at the Macworld Expo, all was forgiven and I was quite happy to be tied to AT&T. Even their required $20 iPhone data plan, complete with 200 text messages, seemed like a fair deal to me. That is, until the following year when the iPhone 3G debuted, and AT&T forced you to upgrade to a $30 per month data plan with no text messages (those same 200 text messages would now set me back an extra $5 per month). I groused about it, but given the fact that the data was now 3G, I quickly rationalized it in my head as being a worthwhile expense. (Still debatable, but it is faster than EDGE, at least.)

And truth be told, I probably view the two AT&T bills I pay each month (one for my cell phone service and one for my home phone with broadband DSL and Dish HD satellite) as one of the better values for my money, considering how much use I get out of them. That is, until AT&T starts making me feel like a chump for hitching to their wagon.

It’s been happening a lot lately on the App Store. Skype finally released a great app, only to have it hindered by Wi-Fi only usage… no free calls over 3G for you! Same for Slingplayer Mobile, a long-awaited (and expensive) app that streams live video from your satellite or other home theatre box, direct to your PC or phone. In both cases, the same apps are available on several Blackberry or Windows Mobile devices on AT&T, where 3G streaming is A-OK. So, what gives? Why should the iPhone be excluded?

After all, what does AT&T care if my wife wants to call her family in Ukraine via Skype and talk for free on their 3G data plan? They require that $30 per month data plan as a condition for owning an iPhone, so who are they to act as gatekeepers to how it’s used? Especially when the 3 lines on my 700 minutes per month Family Plan don’t get used each month, so we wind up paying extra money for services not used, at least in my eyes. AT&T would rather extort another $3.99 per month from us on top of 26¢ per minute (landline) or 32¢ per minute (cell) for their World Connect service, not counting cell phone minutes used. (Instead, we use Telna, a highly-recommended long-distance service that clocks in at 10.9¢ per minute for landline or 13.9¢ per minute for cell, with no monthly fees.) Some have made the argument that AT&T’s 3G data network just isn’t up to the task of hordes of data-hungry iPhone users making Skype calls or watching their TV shows via Slingplayer, but let’s face it: Those are not things an average cell phone user would do anyway. It’s a weak excuse, especially when the services are allowed on competing phones.

But the removal of the Google Voice apps is really baffling. It’s not a VOIP service like Skype… so it’s not using any precious 3G data. Rather, it does a quick connection with Google’s server and then calls into your phone to make the connection, therefore using up those aforementioned AT&T minutes when the call goes to my iPhone. OK, so it also does free SMS messages… but so do a billion other apps on the App Store, and some of those are 100% free, robbing AT&T of their precious text message dollars.

Let’s also not forget that when Apple unleashed their recent 3.0 software update, finally bringing MMS and tethering to the iPhone, AT&T dropped the ball and those services are still not available to us at this writing (they’re promised for “late summer”, although AT&T is still mum on how much tethering is going to cost).

AT&T has been absorbing a lot of hate from iPhone users lately, all the while continuing to rake in big money from them. To me, they seem to be taking the role of the spoiled rich kid with all the latest toys, who decides that the poor kids around them aren’t good enough to share with. And we don’t have much choice in the matter, either. Sure, we can all jailbreak & unlock our iPhones and use them on T-Mobile (the only other GSM-compatible service here in the U.S.), but sadly, their 3G network is not compatible with the iPhone’s hardware, leaving us with that lowly EDGE connection from the first-generation phone.

Jailbreaking does bring another benefit, however… installing a simple, free patch via Cydia, you can trick Skype, Slingplayer and similar apps into thinking you’re on a Wi-Fi connection when you’re using 3G, effectively sticking it to The Man (although it does violate your terms of service, so in theory they could stick it back to you by cutting you off if you abuse it). GV Mobile also just went live via Cydia, now absolutely free, and the developer seems committed to keeping it alive, despite being banished from the official App Store.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Cell phone users in Europe just have it so much better. Do you know that in most other countries, prepaid service is the norm, where in the U.S. it’s looked at mostly as a service for old people and deadbeats with bad credit? Or that incoming calls are free in most countries? Customers can actually choose the phone they want separate from the service they want, and everybody’s happy. Even in my wife’s small town in southern Ukraine, their 3G service is better and faster than what AT&T offers across the U.S.A. How can that be, when AT&T has so many people tied down to burdensome, long-term contracts and limited choices?

AT&T, you’re on notice. I can’t imagine giving up my iPhone, but if they continue to abuse the carrier-customer relationship, I might just go shopping for something else…



This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 28th, 2009 at 3:25 pm and is filed under Apple Talk, Complaint Department, Gadgets, Random Thoughts, Seen & Heard, Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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