SAN FRANCISCO--At the MacWorld ShowStoppers event Monday night, I got a quick look at Newber, an iPhone app from Freedom Voice Systems that lets you redirect calls made to a new number you give out ("newber," get it?) to alternate numbers depending on your location. If you're in the office at your desk, the app can send calls to your work phone. At home? It rings the house phone. Neither? The call will ring on your iPhone. (See also: Grand Central.) The app uses GPS to suggest call routing, but ultimately you make the routing decision. Sounds like a cool idea, but if you want to try it, you can't.
Although Freedom Voice submitted Newber to Apple for approval to sell it in the iTunes store in October, Apple has not approved the app for distribution. It hasn't denied it, either. In fact, Apple will not tell Freedom Voice anything about the disposition of its review except that it's "taking longer than expected" to review the app. Freedom Voice marketing strategist Nick Goudy told me he gets e-mails to that effect about every two weeks. He talks to Apple once a day. He says he uses different phone numbers to prevent them from screening his calls.
When Steve Jobs announced the App Store in October, he said all apps would be approved (or denied) within three weeks.
What's most infuriating, Goudy told me, is that activity logs for the Newber platform indicate that Apple has not yet started or tested the app at all.
iCall, which makes a VoIP app similar in many ways to the approved TruPhone product, is in a similar spot. This app allows users to make VoIP calls from Wi-Fi-equipped iPhones and iPod Touches. CEO Arlo Gilbert told me that his company communicated carefully with Apple regarding not just approved use of the iPhone SDK and communications channels, but also got marketing advice from Apple on how to sell the app. Yet, once the app was submitted for approval (in early October), Apple clammed up, and won't tell the company whether the app is going to be approved or not. E-mail queries are not responded to and phone calls get "ticket numbers" but no resolution.
Gilbert can understand why iPhone network provider AT&T might not like the app, and that's why, he says, he was sure to talk to Apple during development of the product. iCall allows incoming calls to iCall numbers to route around the AT&T cellular network and run over WiFi and VoIP. As Gilbert knows from his experience running a telco, incoming mobile calls are very lucrative for carriers.
Unlike Newber, iCall has been tested by Apple, Gilbert says his logs show. He just wishes he could get an answer--either yea or nay--from Apple.
Both Freedom Voice and iCall say they've invested about $500,000 each in developing their apps, and are wondering what to do next. The companies together have started a petition, titled "Support developers with faster app store response and approval," and the companies are working on alternative versions of their products. Newber is beta testing a Blackberry version and has an Android app in development. iCall has various PC- and Web-based VoIP apps.
Certainly, it would be more fair for Apple to simply say no to Newber and iCall than to leave these products in limbo. I expect the reality is that Apple/AT&&T politics are behind the confusion. Either that, or Apple is developing its own suite of enhanced telephony services, and--as was the case with the over-the-air podcast downloader Podcaster, which offered a service that Apple later released in iTunes--it doesn't want competitive products in its store in advance of the release of its own updates.
Update: 2:35 p.m. PST: I'm waiting to hear back from Apple after a request for a comment.