It’s their call

The least attractive aspect of Apple’s captivating iPhone may be the limits imposed by Apple and its iPhone partner, AT&T.; A good example is Apple’s refusal to permit iPhone users to download a customized version of Google Voice, a feature-laden telecommunications service. But just because Apple and AT&T; aren’t playing nice with competitors, that doesn’t mean the government should force them to. At least not yet.

Google Voice is a Web-based service that allows users to merge all their phone lines and voicemail inboxes behind a single phone number, as well as to route and screen calls. Users can also make international calls through the Internet, bypassing expensive phone lines. Earlier this year, Google developed software that made it easier to use Google Voice on an iPhone and submitted it for inclusion in the iPhone App Store -- the only authorized source of iPhone programs. Apple balked, prompting the Federal Communications Commission to demand answers from Apple and AT&T;, which holds the exclusive rights to the iPhone in the U.S.

Last week, Apple told the commission that it hadn’t really rejected the Google Voice application -- it was still studying it. The company listed a handful of concerns it had with the program, most of which related to the fact that Google’s software does not look or perform the way Apple’s does. It also revealed that, at AT&T;'s request, it does not approve any application that uses AT&T;'s wireless network to make calls through the Internet or “redirect a TV signal to an iPhone” unless AT&T; gives permission. AT&T; defended its stance against Internet phone services, saying it couldn’t afford the large subsidies it provides for the iPhone if users spent less on AT&T;'s calling plans. But it also pledged to “take a fresh look” at the issue.

Apple’s process for approving iPhone applications remains maddeningly opaque -- for instance, programs similar to Google Voice have been approved, although a few were rejected later. And developers can’t succeed unless they get into the App Store, the only sure way to reach millions of iPhone users. Nevertheless, the FCC shouldn’t delve any further into the Google Voice dispute. Neither Apple nor AT&T; are gatekeepers in the competitive mobile market, and until they start to approach that point, the government shouldn’t force them to make life easy for their competitors. We think the wiser course for Apple and AT&T; would be to welcome all compatible programs to their devices. But it’s their call. Google Voice users can get to the service through the iPhone’s Web browser, but if that isn’t slick enough for them, they can always switch to a BlackBerry or a Google phone.