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A New Era for Cell Phones

April 2008

You love your cell phone — and you hate it. You love it because of the convenience, but hate locking yourself into contracts with the carriers, hate being limited by their offerings, hate having to pay for every little extra such as ring tones, and hate the complexity the dang thing.

Maybe I overstate. Still, whatever your view, you’ll be happy to hear that things are changing. The stranglehold of the carriers is in retreat.

A first salvo was fired by Apple, with its highly original iPhone. It quickly became one of the fastest-selling phones, in large part due to its ease of use, and was named Time magazine’s invention of the year for 2007. So why was Apple able to think different?

The answer is that they were willing to defy the carriers, who generally require that manufacturers make phones with a specific interface. They want all cell phones to work alike, in part so that don’t have the expensive chore of providing customer support. Keep it uniform.

Apple wanted something different, and the first carrier they approached turned them down because they had no interest in breaking the mold. But Steve Jobs was able to talk Cingular (now AT&T) into partnering with Apple, and the iPhone was born.

It immediately shook up the industry, and other manufacturers, such as HTC, began emulating the touch interface and other features.

Credit Google with firing a second salvo. Google rules the Internet, and now that the Internet is coming to cell phones in a big way, Google wants a piece of that action too. And more important, Google doesn’t want to kowtow to the carriers.

So Google and other companies succeeded in pressuring the FCC to allocate a portion of the wireless spectrum recently auctioned to be a more open environment.

Huh? Okay, let’s review. Last month we noted that all TV broadcasting will be digital starting February 17, 2009. This was because the older analog signal took up too much of the wireless spectrum compared to the more efficient digital broadcasting — and this spectrum was badly needed in the wireless industry. So the government mandated digital broadcasting and recently auctioned off the areas of the spectrum that will be newly available for wireless.

But Google and others said, we don’t want more of the same old thing. Yep, those major carriers will buy up that space, and we’ll still be in a straight jacket of contracts, limited functionality, and all that. Please require that the new spectrum be open. People ought to be able to buy a phone without being locked into a contract and have the choice of using that phone with whatever carrier they want — and have the choice of using any software they want. That’s the way it’s done in Europe.

The FCC listened, but only a bit. They stipulated that a third of the newly available spectrum be open. That’s a step in the right direction.

Yet, even that much seems to be spurring a trend, because late last year Verizon announced that beginning this year it would move to make its network more open in 2008. Customers would be able to use compatible phones other than those sold by Verizon, and software developers would be able to write software for these phones without first getting permission from Verizon.

In short, phones are becoming less like phones and are more like mobile computers. More flexibility and less control by the carriers.

A third salvo was also fired by Google. Let’s say that everything goes swimmingly and becomes open. The carriers will no longer constrain what software runs your phone. But many phones are limited in what they can do, and their functionality is somewhat controlled by the operating system that they use — such as Microsoft’s Windows Mobile.

Google said, basically, we not only need open spectrum but an open and more flexible platform. And in November of last year they announced they’re making freely available a new mobile platform called Android to a consortium of 34 carriers, manufacturers, and software developers called the Open Handset Alliance. Phones using the Android platform are expected to start shipping the second half of this year.

So what’s it all mean? The hope is that it means a future in which manufacturers are unbridled in their design of handsets, and these handsets would work across wireless networks worldwide. They’d have all the latest software and technology, all at a lower price than we’re paying now. Sounds good to me.

© 2008 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen