Suppose colleagues often call the house, even in the early hours. This morning you’re half dressed and still sipping coffee when the phone rings. It’s an important business call, but your ride to a sales meeting is suddenly outside honking. You can hang up and return the call later, interrupting a promising train of thought. Or innovative software called Newber could switch the call from the landline to your iPhone as you dash out the door.
So far, the scenario plays out in theory only. Newber is the patented design of FreedomVoice, an Encinitas company that produces digital phone systems for businesses. The software uses global positioning technology to keep track of phone locations and would allow landline calls to be transferred to an iPhone nearby. It also would allow users to switch calls to a landline when their iPhone is getting bad reception or its battery is low.
On October 2, 2008, the company applied to Apple to get the invention placed as a download choice on Apple’s iPhone. Users of the mobile phone could then select Newber for purchase from thousands of other applications available in Apple’s App Store. Entrepreneurs seeking to gain approval from Apple must submit a formal request by email. FreedomVoice followed all the procedures to the letter, but to no avail so far.
It’s not as if Apple has rejected Newber. “They just didn’t respond,” says Eric Thomas, FreedomVoice’s chief executive. By Thomas’s choice, we are speaking by phone on a recent afternoon. What irks him the most is that Apple “didn’t even open a dialogue to say the issue we have with your product is blank so that we could have done something about blank.”
I ask Thomas whether his company tried to open that dialogue through contacts with Apple after the initial application process. “Only desperately,” he replies, laughing. “By that, I mean daily and with ferocity. We tried everything we could think of: calling, emailing, calling different numbers. Periodically, we’d get hold of somebody who’d say, ‘Well, you have to work through the system, and eventually you’ll get an email.’ ” Meanwhile, Thomas can only scratch his head over what Apple is thinking.
The problem for Newber may be the agreement that Apple has with AT&T: the telephone network is the iPhone’s exclusive provider. Wouldn’t placing Newber on the iPhone, I ask, siphon money away from AT&T?
“You can argue that the thing the App Store objects to is that calls might be moved off the AT&T network onto some other device. But that clearly hasn’t been their concern, since they’ve allowed Skype to work on the iPhone.” Skype allows users to make free long-distance calls on the internet. “And by now, they’ve also allowed applications similar to what we’ve submitted to be accepted. So their refusal to accept Newber must be due to some other factor.”
Thomas makes the case that Newber would be good for Apple as well as for his company and potential users. That causes him to be even more mystified about Apple’s reluctance to adopt the product. “On the one hand, they seem very particular about what they allow on iPhone, but then they have applications that make fart noises. So who knows?”
I press Thomas on what he sees as Newber’s advantages to Apple. “At the time we applied,” he tells me, “they were in desperate need of business applications on iPhone. In the beginning of the App Store [in mid-2008], iPhone was more of a consumer product than a business product by far. Admittedly, they have made some progress in that regard recently.” But from anecdotal evidence, “not scientific study,” Thomas has gotten a strong impression that the BlackBerry is still the smart phone of choice for most people seeking business applications.
When considering the iPhone after it first came out in 2007, many potential buyers, Thomas imagines, must have asked, So where are your business applications? “Well, here’s one,” he says, referring to Newber, “which combines the consumer and the business applications.”
After Apple’s neglect became apparent, FreedomVoice did consider BlackBerry and other devices to become Newber’s platform. But integrating the Newber software with BlackBerry, according to Thomas, is more difficult than it would be with iPhone.
There is another option for FreedomVoice, one that I bring up gingerly, not wanting to accuse Thomas of contemplating something illegal. Or is it illegal? I am referring to jailbreaking. According to Urban Dictionary, to jailbreak is “to crack an iPhone so it can run third party programs.”
Of course, Apple declares jailbreaking to be illegal. But Mike Brus, a San Diego public-school educator and website designer, says it falls into “a gray area” that has yet to be tested legally. “Similar to hacking, jailbreaking is a form of digital protest,” says Brus. “Apple is known in the industry as very arrogant. Its extremely proprietary nature is what makes many computer geeks out there want to jailbreak. I’ve had kids tell me that they’ve seen instructions for how to jailbreak on YouTube.”
FreedomVoice’s Eric Thomas says of jailbreaking, “We could have done that. At the time of our application, the big media push was all about the App Store. Jailbreaking was just a way to get an application onto an iPhone that’s not going to be used for the AT&T network. Maybe there was a market out there for that. A number of the iPhones are jailbroken, but it just didn’t seem like it had all that much promise.”
Do you consider jailbreaking illegal? I ask Thomas.
“I’ve never looked into it,” he says. “I don’t think ethically it’s a problem. It’s the agreement between AT&T and iPhone that is trying to get you to be exclusive to that combination. But Apple is selling you a device. It seems like you should be able to use that device on whatever network you want. From a consumer-protection point of view, the fair thing is to let the device be used openly.”
The question of platforms for Newber other than iPhone fell by the wayside early on anyway. “We talked it over,” says Thomas, “and decided that, instead of chasing other platforms while Apple ignored us, we really should focus on our core business. Originally, we wanted to get on iPhone because the App Store was new and Newber was something we could do that wasn’t out there. And we could offer it not so much to make a killing in profit but to get something into the marketplace that was useful to people and of great value. We might have made a little money too.”
(According to Mike Brus, scores of “guys have made huge amounts writing scripts at home to create applications that Apple puts on iPhone.” Recently, Apple announced that three billion downloads have been made on iPhone already.)
Whatever cash Newber might have earned, its being on the iPhone would have produced a secondary benefit, according to Thomas. “It would have gotten our name out there, while our company was in the throes of introducing” a new product. That product is called FreedomIQ, software that runs PBX systems for businesses. “In the end, we want to tie Newber into FreedomIQ as a platform to simplify the use of it. That’s the real promise for the technology.”
Thomas is optimistic, yet his feelings are mixed. He retains great bitterness toward the way Apple has treated his company. “My fantasy world very early in the application process had Apple calling me up and wanting to do comarketing. That didn’t happen.”
In developing Newber, Thomas wrote in an open letter that can still be found on the device’s webpage that FreedomVoice spent $500,000 on “R&D, architectural changes, patent application, and marketing that has accomplished next to nothing.” The letter quotes a remark once made by Apple’s Steve Jobs that the App Store is “the best deal going to distribute applications to mobile platforms.” Writes Thomas, “Our experience is that it is the worst deal going.”
By late summer, Apple’s high-handed procedures were being questioned in a number of media outlets after Apple rejected Google Voice, an application that has similarities to Newber. It turns out the Federal Communications Commission had already begun to look into the matter. On July 31, James Schlichting, the agency’s acting chief of its wireless telecommunications bureau, wrote to Apple demanding information on its approval methods. The letter suggested suspicions of antitrust violations and included the following questions. “Why did Apple reject the Google Voice application for iPhone and remove related third-party applications from its App Store?” “Did Apple act alone, or in consultation with AT&T, in deciding to reject the Google Voice application and related applications?” “Does AT&T have any role in the approval of iPhone applications generally?” “What are the standards for considering and approving iPhone applications?”
Meanwhile, on the Newber website, a digital clock called “Awaiting App Store Approval” keeps track of how long it’s been since FreedomVoice submitted its request for Newber’s approval. As of this writing, the ticker reads 473 days, 10 hours, 22 minutes, and 17 seconds.