How many iPhone apps has O2 banned from the App Store?

Today, 0870, a fantastic free iPhone app from freelance mobile developer Simon Maddox is at last available in the UK App Store, after a whopping 429 days in the approval process. And it appears that O2 was largely to blame for the hold up.

As I wrote on my Telegraph post on the subject:

To understand the delay, we need to understand the app. 0870 turns 08* numbers — such as 0870, 0845 and 0800 — which cost 35p per minute to call (on top of what you’re already paying for your contracted minutes) into 01* or 02* numbers, which come out of your allowance or are very cheap on Pay As You Go.

Essentially, 0870 makes it a lot cheaper for iPhone users to call the 08* numbers that a lot of organisations use as one way to generate revenue off their call centres. It costs more to call an 08* number than it does to call a geographic landline number, so understandably, there has been consumer backlash in the form of SayNoTo0870 – a website that collects landline alternatives to 08* numbers.

The 0870 app searches this database for the 08* number you’re trying to call, and if it finds an alternative landline number, you’re given the option to call it from directly within the app, using the allowance you’ve already paid for.

screenshot 2 screenshot 3

It’s been available for Android users since January this year, and Maddox estimates that it’s saved users around £84,000 since then, basing the figure on the number of successful conversions * 0.35 * 5 minutes per call.

I wasn’t surprised when I heard in June this year that Apple had rejected the 0870 app when Maddox first submitted it. After all, Apple is notorious for banning apps from their store for reasons that sometimes make perfect sense and sometimes make no sense at all.

In this case, it was the latter. Apple rejected 0870 “for attempting to ‘circumvent carrier features and policies‘”.

In August, Maddox contacted Apple to find out if there was any way to get 0870 into the App Store. And this is where it gets really interesting. His contact within Apple told him:

I was told that when we originally brought this up to O2, they had an issue with this. However, based on your message, I’ve tried to contact O2 again, and hope to have an answer early next week.

[A week and a half later]

I’ve finally gotten word from O2 that neither they, nor anyone at BT, would be happy about this service.

So it looks like Apple rejected 0870 because the app stepped on Apple’s network partner’s anti-competitive toes. It’s not clear what changed O2’s mind in this instance – all Maddox says is that there was some to-ing and fro-ing after which O2 finally decided to allow the App in the App Store. Apple then approved the app within hours.

My guess is that O2 realised that they didn’t have much of a leg to stand on if they couldn’t specify exactly which of its carrier features and policies were being circumvented by an app automating a look-up that any human could do using Safari on the iPhone.

It sounds like a storm in a teacup but to me it speaks of something with potentially tons of impact on developers and any companies focusing on the mobile web. Here is proof that you need to develop your shiz for as many platforms and networks as you can, because if you have only one route to market and the incumbent player decides they don’t want the disruption and the competition, you’re screwed. I doubt Maddox would have had half the attention or interest in 0870 on the iPhone had he not had the Android stats to use as leverage.

On that note, I’m not sure if other European markets have a similar approach to non-geographic numbers, but I’m sure our readers do – tell all in the comments. If you want to see 0870 ported to other platforms or would like to see a version of 0870 that works in your region, you can find Simon on Twitter: @simonmaddox.

The app has to date been a free to use, not-for-profit endeavour. The latest iPhone version is still free but ad-funded, which I don’t really have a problem with – a freelance developer’s got to eat. Still, I do think a donation style approach would be more appropriate to this sort of ‘public good’ application.