Confusion and Uncertainty as AT&T’s Policies Needlessly Complicate App Development
Confusion and Uncertainty as AT&T’s Policies Needlessly Complicate App Development
Confusion and Uncertainty as AT&T’s Policies Needlessly Complicate App Development

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    The video chat feature of Google’s new Hangouts app for Android doesn’t work over cellular if you’re an AT&T subscriber. Does that sound familiar?

    If you’ve been reading our blog this week, yes it will, because it’s another story about AT&T and restictions on the Open Internet. But it should also be familiar for another reason, because at first glance this is the same as what happened with Apple’s Facetime video chat app last year—AT&T is deciding what apps its users can use on the data connections they pay for.

    It’s interesting how arbitrary this is. The iOS version the app has no such restrictions. This shows how odd it is that AT&T continues to maintain that there is some clear distinction between “pre-loaded” and downloaded apps, where it can block one kind but not the other. There is no way to characterize a downloaded Google app for an Apple device as pre-loaded, of course—but based on the statement AT&T has given out in response to questions about this, the company appears to have decided that a Google app for Android counts as “pre-loaded” even when you have to download and install it from an app store. In other words, when it plainly is not pre-loaded. That’s wrong, but it’s just the start of what’s wrong here.

    It’s too early to reach firm conclusions as to exactly what’s happening, and I hope it’s just some sort of miscommunication or oversight and that Android users on AT&T will be able to use the same features in the same ways as their iOS counterparts. Preliminarily, I think the most likely cause is right there in AT&T’s statement: it’s “up to each OS and device maker[] to enable their systems to allow pre-loaded video chat apps to work over cellular for our customers on those plans,” with “those plans” referring to the plans AT&T has decided should be allowed to use built-in video apps.

    In the first place, as PK has said before, AT&T should not be in the business of telling its customers what apps they can use, and what plan the customer subcribes to doesn’t change that. AT&T charges its customers for data and new customers can only sign up for capped plans. How a subscriber uses the data she pays for is her business. (And she shouldn’t have to try to figure out what AT&T means by “pre-loaded.”)

    Second, putting the burden on app developers to detect what plan a customer has and selectively enable or disable particular features is overly burdensome. A developer who writes an app for Android or iOS or Windows Phone should not have to worry about what carrier a user is on, any more than the developer of an XBox game should have to worry about what ISP a gamer has, or the developer of a Mac app should have to worry about whether the user is connected to the Internet via Starbucks WiFi or a home ethernet connection.

    The proposition when you buy an Internet connection is simple: You buy an Internet connection. Then you use it. AT&T (and others, to be sure) want to complicate that proposition and come up with new ways to get paid from users, new ways to get paid from content creators, and new ways to get paid from app developers.

    But even apart from the financial considerations, all these schemes make using the Internet and creating apps a lot more complicated than it needs to be. Users have to keep track of what kinds of apps they’re allowed to use and what kind are forbidden. And if even a huge company like Google can have a hard time making its products work the same way across all carriers, imagine how hard it could be for a new entrant trying to break into the market?

    The Internet is great because anyone can make any app that any user can run. Let’s keep it that way.