Why Apple's App Store Rules Don't Apply to Skype

Last Updated Jul 30, 2010 4:41 AM EDT

On July 21, telephony app-maker Skype released a shiny new version of its iOS app for iPhone. And it flies in the face of everything we know about the App Store.

Skype's new app does what users have been begging for since 2008: it can now run in the background, receive calls even when the phone is locked, and keep callers on the line while other apps run in the foreground. In May, Skype somehow convinced Apple's (AAPL) to approve a new version of that app that made calls over AT&T's 3G data network. Now, with background operation, Skype has achieved something that scarcely seems possible: a complete and total replacement for voice calling, all done over the AT&T data network, without using minutes.

What's uncharacteristic about all these features isn't that they're great -- Skype has been an innovator for years -- but that the company managed to sneak all this stuff by the normally-stalwart App Store approval process. Apple's is infamous for rejecting apps that provide "duplicate functionality," and in the last several years we've seen tethering apps, SMS app look-alikes and even Google (GOOG) Voice get thrown under the bus.

For Skype, a more parsimonious iPhone experience is just one incremental step in its plan for global domination. (Humble Europeans that they are, Skype's principals prefer to call their vision "ubiquitous communication.")

But for American carriers, the step is disruptive. Until this week, it was Verizon who had the most to boast about when it came to Skype. The company had plastered Skype branding all over its homepage, and advertised six of its phones -- including flagships like the Droid X and Droid Incredible -- as being the ultimate Skype machines.

Of course, the fine print told a different story: that Verizon had figured out a way to make Skype run over its CDMA voice network, not data, meaning that Skype calls still used minutes. ("Low rates on international calls" and "free Skype-to-Skype calls" were the big red network's hot selling points.) But for many Skype fans, it seemed this was the closest they would get to real mobile Skype calls.

AT&T's 3G Skype calls, by comparison, are free -- at least until the end of 2010, when Skype says it may introduce "a small fee" for 3G data calls.

The beauty of Skype's new iteration is that it shows us the profile of an app-maker that doesn't seem to give a damn about Apple's or AT&T's petty regulations; in short, a mobile software company that can stand up to the carriers. With 500 million users worldwide, and the potential for many more via a contact-integration deal with Facebook, Skype may have enough leverage that it can simply do whatever it wants. For app developers, this should be a heartening message: that the proclivities of the App Store are not entirely inflexible, and that if an app is successful enough, it can indeed change the way Apple and AT&T do business.

The reason for Apple's lenience may have something to do with RIM's (RIMM) coming tablet, which will reportedly feature video calling (among other boons, like Adobe (ADBE) Flash integration.) Though Apple's FaceTime is probably on par with whatever RIM is cooking up, it also has very little brand recognition, owing to its newness and its poorly-chosen moniker. Having a juggernaut like Skype running free in the iOS is a powerful asset for Apple, especially if it should document the APIs that control the front-facing camera, and allow Skype to conduct 3G video calls.

Of course, all this potential is hampered by AT&T's recent data caps on its iPhone plans. I haven't been able to find any concrete information on how much data a 3G Skype call consumes, but Yahoo News reported last month that a 10-minute call sucks up about 2.2MB. If any readers have tried the app out and conducted their own measurements, please feel free to share in the comments.