May 4, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

Over the next ten years or so, as others have said, a big platform war may not be as between Windows & Linux, but between computers and (deluxe) cell phones.

For Bellheads, the cell phone is in many ways a dream platform. It puts many of the sacred principles of closed infrastructures into place, including:

1. Limits on equipment attachments; (customers use approved cell phones);
2. Vertically integrated content & applications; (ringtones, etc.)
3. Pay-per-use, value added services (like “411 and more!”)
4. General freedom to bill;
5. Limited customizability or programability.

So the cell phone platform, if the Bells are right about innovation, should be just killer. As a revenue source, that’s true. Yet other than SMS, I guess, I just don’t see alot of apps other than voice.

The question is, would it make sense for a provider to experiment with an open cell platform? To make it easy for third party developers to offer applications to cell-users, without making some kind of deal?

Do principles like Network Neutrality make any sense for wireless? Or are conditions sufficiently different?

  • l0ne

    As far as I know, 1. is not the case in Europe (for example, out of 4 cell phone operators in Italy, only one ties the SIM to the cell phone, and many buyers of its cell phones routinely change the firmware on the phone after buying to disable the lock).

    Also, the variety of the platform poses a huge problem when trying to develop for it — just look at the phone selection page for Opera Mini!

  • http://jimparsons.blogspot.com Jim Parsons

    Please forgive me if this seems “spammy” but it’s very relevant to the topic of your post. In late December 2005 my company (Mexens Technologies) launched a wireless positioning technology called Navizon (“Virtual GPS” for handheld devices that operates free of a wireless carrier relationship). This software runs on WindowsMobile PocketPC’s, Smartphones, Symbian OS cell phones and RIM devices and is free for personal use (today there are 20,000 active users in 30 countries). Personal Navigation, Buddy Tracking (voluntary) and “GeoTagging” to support mobile blogging and social networking apps are just the tip of the iceberg on what’s possible.

    The “bellheads” LOVE their control over wireless infrastructure and customer relationships but I don’t think developers and consumers are as enthusiastic (and these two parties are critical for adoption and growth of platforms and content). Based on the trajectory of most wireless carriers AOL’s lessons in the area of walled gardens seem completely lost… and just as municipal WiFi/WiMax infrastructures (an opportunity or a threat depending on your POV) seem to be looming large as a connectivity option for most current and probably all future handheld devices.

    However the cellular/mobile market shakes out, the “hand” is definitely a platform and sure to be a powerful one… so watch this space.

  • Lumiere

    Wireless bandwidth (anything from cellphones to WiFi to 3G to satellite phones to …) is expensive, and likely to remain so due to physical constraints. Recovering the costs of that bandwidth from the user base is tricky. Bits are bits, but people pay a lot more per-bit for some mobile services (e.g., SMS) than for others (e.g., video).

    Palm & Windows Mobile devices are less closed, software-wise, than most lower-end cellphones. The same is true of other phones with JVMs & web browsers, and to a lesser extent phones with BREW. However, many software packages for mobile devices are not well-written for the low bandwidth, high latency, high packet- & session-drop rate, high cost-per-bit environment of wireless. That may change if the developers see their customers caring. Users will care if they’re charged by the bit, or if the application behaves poorly. Mobile operators care about every bit, because every bit costs them money to transmit. And while they could pass those costs onto the users, competition and operational efficiency dictate that it’s better to avoid incurring the costs in the first place.

  • http://www.tekstadventure.nl/branko/blog/ Branko Collin

    Oddly enough cellphones are a user-driven platform. Users have taken to them like a house on fire. This may be despite their supposed closedness, but I expect it’s because cellphones open up applications for their owners. So in a sense they are a very open platform.

  • http://wanderingjew.co.uk Richard

    I have to agree with l0ne – but go further.

    Firstly, here in Hong Kong very few people get a phone from their network, so it’s obviously not tied. In the UK, it’s still common to get a locked phone from the network, but again, unlocking is cheap, easy and widespread, and the regulator-imposed MNP is reliable, enough to make it a serious threat to an operator: “Give me a better deal or I’m taking my number elsewhere!”

    In my case, I have a Treo 650, bought myself at retail, and a contract from one of the local networks with no minimum term. In other words:

    1. It’s absolutely not approved by the network, and it’s generally understand that as long as it’s a GSM phone, it’s nothing to do with the networks what device I use.
    2. I buy nothing from my network except service – they try to sell me things like ringtones, sure, but I can just load an MP3, wav file, etc. on there myself.
    3. I have been here a year and never used an information service like 411, mainly because I have cheap (HK$128=US$16.5 today) unmetered GPRS. It’s not that fast, but it is fixed-rate and cheap – so it’s easier for me to go onto the web to look something up than to call a premium-rate information service.
    4. It’s a general-purpose computer which happens to have a ubiquitous (even in road tunnels and the subway) data connection. It also has reasonably good APIs for third-party extensions – for example, I have a utility program which will allow you to lock or even, as the nuclear option, remove all data from the machine, by sending it a coded SMS, obviously for the case where it’s lost/stolen.

    Hong Kong is one of the places in the world where the present is visibly moving into the future – it’s unique in some ways (very high-tech, high-income, densely-packed population), but it would be nice to see this sort of thing extend to the world. A combination between relatively hands-off networks, a reasonable amount of competition, and an advanced and open, though not cutting-edge device – the Treo 650 is almost 18 months old – makes for an interesting combination…

  • http://sanjanah.googlepages.com/ Sanjana Hattotuwa

    “Yet other than SMS, I guess, I just don’t see alot of apps other than voice.”

    Even at the present rate of development, I’d argue that what you point to earlier – mobile phones challenging the position the PC now enjoys as the access device of choice to the web and internet – would create the necessary applications that run on mobiles that can be pay-per-use or free-to-use ad supported models that deliver content on 3G networks.

    See http://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2006/05/08/mobile-phone-futures/

    Best,

    Sanjana Hattotuwa