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Mobile Open Source doesn’t bring down the garden wall

As expected there have been a lot of articles posted about Nokia's acquisition and decision to open source Symbian, one of the older operating systems for cellular devices. There's a good review of the different contenders for "king of the mobile hill" on TechCrunch if you are interested.

Making the operating system "open source" doesn't change the dynamics of deploying mobile applications. Like it or not, the wireless carriers still have the whip hand when it comes to controlling the applications that run on the phone. It's still a walled garden.

I'm more hopeful about the iPhone and its impact to provide a more accessible platform for application developers. There are still a lot of limitations about what the application can do but it's a step in the right direction. I'd love to see Google's Android deployed but it's certainly taking a long time to see the light of day.

Unfortunately there aren't a lot of incentives for the wireless carriers to open the flood gates for new applications – especially those applications where the carrier doesn't see incremental revenue. More data on the wireless network means contention for bandwidth and cell slots for voice calls – system busy or dropped voice calls are more irritating to the customer and historically have been one of the primary drivers of subscriber churn.

I'm sure the lessons from the wireline world aren't lost on the wireless carriers (especially since most of them have wireline networks of their own) – in the limit, moving bits is a commodity business and the lowest cost provider wins. Being the lowest cost provider requires operational excellence and smart deployment of capital – always balancing capacity against costs. In the wireless world, this is even harder – so none of the wireless carriers are in a hurry to see a repeat performance.

What will it take to bring down the walls? My guess is that one of the weaker carriers will make a death or glory decision to open up and hope that enough compelling applications get deployed on their phones to build back their customer base. As much as Google may hope that new spectrum sales by the FCC with an "open" requirement will drive change, the capital to build out a nationwide footprint is a big nut to crack – if it happens, it will take years to make a dent.

In the meantime, we're left with RIM and the iPhone as deployment platforms – still a big enough customer base to provide a spring board for new applications but just like applications on Facebook, it's likely that only a handful of applications will win big. The key will be picking the RIGHT applications – an area I'm spending a lot of time on at the moment.

Expect the "walls to come tumbling down" slowly…

 

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STU PHILLIPS
MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA

Intense Brit, lived in Silicon Valley since 1984. Avid pilot, like digital photography, ham radio and a bunch of other stuff. Official Geek.

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