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iPhone App Bans: A Vision of Things to Come?

Smartphones are the hottest thing in mobile devices today. The advent of 3G networks and advanced mobile operating systems has transformed simple handhelds into full-fledged, Internet-enabled computing devices. As mobile apps grow in number and sophistication, we're seeing the history of the PC industry replaying itself in the mobile market, albeit in miniature.

That means we get the bad as well as the good. The dawn of the PC era meant a computer in every home, but it also saw the rise of Microsoft as the dominant platform and application vendor for desktop PCs. In the process, Microsoft's anticompetitive practices became the familiar litany of software developers everywhere. The tables may be turned in the smartphone market -- the iPhone is the leading platform and Microsoft is an also-ran -- but if you thought Apple would be above using its dominant position to bring the hammer down on independent software developers, think again.

One example is the ongoing tête-à-tête between Apple and Palm. Palm claims its much-ballyhooed Palm Pre handset can sync music tracks with iTunes; Apple says otherwise. The official story is that "Apple does not provide support for, or test for compatibility with, non-Apple digital media players," but Apple might as well just have said it does not approve of such players. As if on cue, Apple issued a software update that killed the Palm Pre's iTunes sync functionality, barely a week after the device shipped. Palm responded with a fix, but this story surely isn't over.

Even more troubling, however, is Apple's decision to block the Google Voice mobile application from the iTunes App Store. Here is a truly useful piece of third-party mobile software -- it's already available on the BlackBerry and Android platforms, and my colleague Tom Yager says every phone needs Google Voice -- but Apple forbids its use on iPhone devices on the basis that it duplicates existing iPhone functionality.

But that may not be the whole story. Critics claim that the decision to block Google Voice wasn't entirely Apple's, and that AT&T, the exclusive mobile network provider for the iPhone, played a role. The exact reason for AT&T's objection is the subject of speculation -- theories range from lost text-messaging revenue to a blanket ban on VoIP -- but the allegations are evidently concrete enough for the FCC to take an interest.

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