Static on the Dream Phone

This morning, the New York Times published my op-ed about the need for an open phone ecosystem under the title Static on the Dream Phone. I had originally titled it Openness is not a fig leaf. In it, I argue for Verizon (and by extension other major cell carriers) to embrace the vision of Google’s Open Handset Alliance:

Verizon announced last month that it will open its network to “any application and any device” by the end of next year.

But while Verizon’s pledge sounds promising, the language in which it is couched makes me wonder whether Verizon understands what a true open platform looks like. The announcement states that … “devices will be tested and approved in a $20 million state-of-the-art testing lab.”

…Tim Berners-Lee did not have to submit his idea for the World Wide Web in 1991 to a “state-of-the-art testing lab.” All that he needed to unleash a revolution was a single other user willing to install his new Web server software. And the Web spread organically from there.

I go on from there to talk about ideas that will be familiar to readers of this blog, namely that open systems don’t mean the end of competitive advantage, but instead simply move the competition to new ground.

For the current generation of Internet applications, sometimes referred to as “Web 2.0,” the data collected from users is the true source of competitive advantage. And the first movers, the companies that understand and apply this insight, have services that get better fast enough that their competition never catches up.

The power of a social network like MySpace or Facebook isn’t in its software or its control over which applications get on its platform. It is in the critical mass of participating users. Ditto for eBay, Skype or YouTube. Even less obvious cases like Amazon, where user annotation makes for the best product catalog in the world, and Google, whose search index and ad auction are both driven by user participation, show the power that comes from harnessing the collective activity of everyone who uses the service.

Cellular carriers need to embrace this insight. Winner-take-all profits can be achieved by opening up their networks and then harnessing community contributions (including the contributions of software developers) to improve — or invent — new services.

There was one very important bit that was, unfortunately, cut from the printed piece, which opens:

THE Internet and the cellphone are on a collision course.

In the future, the cellphone and similar wireless devices, not the personal computer, will be the primary interface to the cloud of information services that we now call the Internet. The demand for Internet-style applications on the phone — e-mail, maps, photo and video sharing, social networking and even Internet telephony — is exploding.

The next two lines in my original draft, which didn’t make it into the final version, were:

This is why Google’s announcement that they intend to bid in the 700 MHz spectrum auction and their launch of the Open Handset Alliance are among the company’s most important strategic initiatives. If the internet model, in which any device, application, or service can be brought to market without restriction or approval by the network provider, does not take hold in the wireless ecosystem, the growth of internet information providers like Google will eventually grind to a halt.

Whether or not the open cellphone model takes off is important not just to cell carriers like Verizon. It’s critical to every Web 2.0 company as well, which is why Yahoo!, Amazon, and the host of innovative web startups ought to be on board with the open handset alliance as well.

Finally, I wanted to make a note about my assertion that IBM “published the specifications for a personal computer that anyone could build,” since the NYT fact checkers probed me on this point. Technically, the PC was not an open system — in fact, cloners had to reverse-engineer the BIOS (Basic Input-Output System) in order to make PC-compatible computers, and IBM sought to protect part of the design with patents — but it was open enough. It was built largely with off-the-shelf commodity parts, but most importantly, came with detailed specifications that made it easy for people to extend and copy. Perhaps I’m showing my bias as a publisher, but I’ve always thought that detailed, transparent documentation is one of the key factors that make open systems work.

There’s a great summary of this point in a short history of the IBM PC that was published as part of the burst of 20th anniversary reminiscences back in 2001:

One of the best parts of the IBM PC—its Technical Reference manual—went unmentioned in the press release. This manual provided a wealth of information that exposed the PC’s hardware and software to scrutiny by developers. Release of such a cache of data was unthinkable for a company based on closed systems and proprietary hardware and software. Yet the Technical Reference manual provided 362 pages that laid bare the PC, from 82 pages of assembly-language BIOS listings to 50 pages of schematics. By using the Technical Reference as a guide, almost anyone with a grasp of software and digital electronics could produce an add-in board for the PC. And many people did just that.

And of course, it was first add-in boards, and then complete clones, leading to the commoditization of the entire computer hardware industry, the rise in the importance of software, the fertile ground in which the internet model took hold, and all the other themes that I have written about at much greater length in The Open Source Paradigm Shift. It’s time for the phone to go through the same paradigm shift, and become a first class internet citizen.

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