Previous  |  Next


Dec 3

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

When is a phone not a phone?

Answer: When it's an in-car GPS or an eBook reader.

A lot of folks have been focusing on the potential of initiatives like the Open Handset Alliance and the fabled gphone to disrupt the existing mobile phone ecosystem. And yes, the walls are crumbling.

But equally interesting is the fact that cellular technology is escaping the boundaries of the phone. I noted recently my surprise that the Dash is based on openmoko, the other open source cellphone platform. And much of the buzz about Amazon's kindle has been about its always-on connectivity--via cellular modem.

In short, don't expect your next phone to look like a phone, or even to let you make phone calls. The end of the walled garden doesn't just mean the end to locked cell phones. It means the end of the walled garden. Phone technology will end up in lots of unexpected new places.

This is the other end of the trend that has wi-fi and other computer networking technology showing up in phones. Ultimately, in an open telecommunications world, we'll use whatever means we can to connect to the network, finding the best combination of features and price to deliver services that could never have been considered in a world where a phone was just a phone.

tags: android, dash, kindle, openmoko, telephony  | comments: 15   | Sphere It


0 TrackBacks

TrackBack URL for this entry:

pkj   [12.03.07 07:19 AM]

I think it is time we stopped calling a phone a phone since it is doing so much more and things even beyond imagination are being expected out of it.

elmau   [12.03.07 07:32 AM]

Well, we have to let go the concept of a cellphone and think about the concept of a device that allow us to be connected with the information. The device may have the ability to make a phone call or connect to the internet, take photos, make video, play games, send data to people near you, etc... So the main focus of the development of this handsets is to allow people enhance their social interaction, by facilitating some activities like sharing information.

Todd Spraggins   [12.03.07 08:25 AM]

To further PKJ's point, calling it a phone is actually a detriment to the technology. As a phone it must support E911, CALEA, USF and oppressive taxation and regulatory schemes.

Alex Tolley   [12.03.07 09:15 AM]

It's funny how we have been talking about media convergence for at least 15 years, yet by using the word [tele]phone, we are anchored to its use as a device for transmitting speech from one person to another. Clearly the network is the important part, not the peripheral. In our homes and offices, we still tend to have dedicated telephones, but totally separate computers (possibly using Skype) that use most of the bandwidth. Yet with cellphones, we have tried to converge all the functionality into a single device. That is because the carriers still control which devices can access their cell network. Once that cracks open, then I expect we will follow the trajectory of the fixed network market. There will be phones because that is the form factor that works well for conversation, and other devices better suited for other activities.

We still haven't completed the fixed line opening yet. Carriers still control far too many functions that really should be left to the smart peripherals, and telephones still barely can be made to connect to computer software to make better devices. [Can someone make a telephone that connects to my wireless network, or has the I/O jacks for my computer, that could work like Skype by calling numbers on a web page?].

Alex Tolley   [12.03.07 09:25 AM]

It would be nice if Skype and similar products were more open access too. Skype could still charge for their calling engine, but software vendors could layer their own applications over the engine, creating innovative new products using this technology.

But I suppose this (and the access to networks) is really the "open source" argument that Tim has been making for so long.

maplist   [12.03.07 09:50 AM]

phone is the tool of distant communication. The traditional phone is the first kind of modern distant communications. With the era of computer and internet, the form of distant communication will sure be changed.

mage ringlerun   [12.03.07 03:39 PM]

looks like a few of us are getting caught up in symantics... does it matter that its still called a phone? we could call it the "oxygig" if we wanted... would it matter? isn't the important thing that we understand each other when we communicate... and now when you say mobile phone - i think, wifi, email, calls, videos, ipod, etc etc etc...

as for the kindle... its a bit 1970ish for me... black and white??? the last time someone in the office told me that printing in colour was too expensive... i told them i would replace their computer monitor to be an old b&w monitor as well... they quickly realised that you can't hold on to history/price for the sake of holding on... (they currently have a nice 24" ultra sharp LCD :) the kindle will have its market... but i don't think its gonna be a very big one... good on amazon for not just catering for the mainstream though (even though i don't think catering to a small specialised group was their intention :)

mage ringlerun   [12.03.07 03:43 PM]

tim... the captcha's are dogdy dogdy dogdy... i am a human with reasonable cognition (at least i think so ... and if i think .. therefor i am... that was almost descartes wasn't it :-)

had to listen to the audio multiple times... they introduce so much noise its really difficult to pick the numbers... and the text... need to cycle multiple times to get something even bearly readable!

Joel Selanikio   [12.03.07 07:13 PM]

I think that the semantics do matter: when I say "phone" most people think about voice calls, even if they are already getting their email on the phone. When I say "computer" people think about a machine for generalized tasks including web, email, document creation, etc.

Where those semantics may turn out to be different is in the developing world, where the vast majority of people have never seen or touched a traditional "computer", and may not for the foreseeable future -- but where those same people are adopting mobile phones at an incredible pace. For them, the term "mobile" or "phone" may come to mean something closer to what we think of when we say "computer".

But regardless of the term, the likelihood remains that most of the world's "computing" in the future will be done on mobile devices in developing countries where the bulk of the world's population lives. The question is who will design the hardware that will allow the phone to be more easily used as a general-purpose device (iphone, anyone?) and who will create the as-yet-unimagined mobile killer apps that will further drive that market?

Ross Stapleton-Gray   [12.03.07 07:58 PM]

"In short, don't expect your next phone to look like a phone, or even to let you make phone calls"... uh, I think the latter is a necessity, if it's going to be "my next phone." Or we come up with a different name for what it is. I'm just sayin'.

One of the SF images that's stuck with me is from Frederick Pohl's "Age of the Pussyfoot" (, first published in 1977... everyone carries their "joymaker," which is both a communications device, and an end appliance for synthesis (though I can't imagine the regulatory hurdles if Nokia announced plans to have their handsets create meds...).

We're living interesting times. I'm surprised there have been so few "40,000 foot" discussions on how it ought to look to facilitate communication among any points/individuals/groups that would want it... instead there's modest innovation by some carriers, a gang off over there reinventing the Internet under NSF's GENI, the DOT piloting car/car & car/curb commo, etc., etc.

Ross Stapleton-Gray   [12.03.07 08:06 PM]

I blame the captcha for the double post.

And another thing... long before the sinularity, I expect to find a whole slew of situational awareness data points delivered straight into my brain. I shouldn't need to look at a device and parse it with my feeble human vision to know what date and time it is; where north, the nearest bathroom, and the closest exit are; when my closest friends and relatives are nearby; my various body functional parameters; etc., etc.

Given that those channels will have been implemented, what, of what we call "phoning," today, will plug in too?

Ross Stapleton-Gray   [12.03.07 08:48 PM]

Oh, and my phone will apparently be keeping a watchful eye (ear? nose?) out for bombs, too... this from the just-released DHS Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) solicitation:

Miniature Chem/Bio/Explosive Sensors
TECHNOLOGY AREAS: Chem/Bio/Explosive Detection, Communications
OBJECTIVE: To develop robust and inexpensive miniature collector and sensor systems that enable ubiquitous Chemical, Biological, and/or Explosive detection through integration into hand held devices such as cellular phones or attached to other personal wireless devices that provide for sensor integration, geo-location, and contain an independent power supply.
DESCRIPTION: Many modern detectors for chemical, biological, or explosive materials are generally too large to fit inside a handheld device that is approximately 2 inches x 4 inches x 3/4 inch thick. The primary application for these miniature collection and detection systems is integration with cellular and other wireless devices that enable it to become part of a larger distributed alert network that improves situational awareness for mission personnel. The collection and sensing system should become inexpensive, low power, robust to the environment, of no personal risk and maintenance free for the life of the device.
PHASE I: Develop and document a miniaturized collection and sensor systems design concept and/or miniature physics based collection or sensor component to accurately assess presence of chemical, biological or explosives in the immediate area. During this phase of the investigation, evidence for the eventual miniaturization for the system and/or components should be collected and documented. Understand that power budgets for cellular and other wireless devices are highly limited and affect marketability.
PHASE II: Produce a prototype miniaturization for the proposed system and/or components with a demonstration that involves sensing and communication for specific geographical environments and ambient conditions. Demonstrate that the collector, sensor and/or system is feasible in Phase I.
PHASE III: Working with DHS program managers and major cell phone designers and suppliers provide working models of the developed technology for integration into a larger ubiquitous detection system for biological, chemical and/or explosive materials detection. Produce first run beta collection, sensor, and/or systems and support independent test and evaluation of the system.
KEY WORDS: Chemical detection, Biological detection, Explosive detection, Cell Phone, Cell-all, collector

Ray   [12.03.07 09:52 PM]

How is the Kindle not a walled garden?
All Amazon has to do is disallow connection to the web in general and it seems pretty walled to me. The main content comes from Amazon and seems to be selected from Amazon (yeah, you can email your own stuff to it, but why?).

Further, does Amazon allow you to surf to Sony Connect and download content directly to your Kindle? Does it allow you to surf to ANY of the other ebook repositories and grab a document?

Ehsan Honary   [12.04.07 09:40 AM]

To be honest, Google's attempt seems to be more in line with breaking this walled garden than others leading to vast number of new devices that will fill the entire spectrum of functionality. The combination of Google bidding for spectrum and Android open mobile software means that a developer can design devices that only need to conform to certain hardware and software specifications and interfaces. From there, many independent developers can join in to enhance these devices.

That's the revolution we are waiting which will lead to devices for both sides of the spectrum: directly targeted to do specific tasks such as Kindle which is used for "reading" or to become jack-of-all-trades such as Windows Mobile and iPhone.

We will end up with connected mobile devices acting as brains of robots, as sensors for situational awareness, as probes to monitor our environment, as perception enhancers giving us real-time data on just about anything we imagine.

We are good at mass-manufacturing. Once we have set up the protocols and the business model, the system will fly. All we have to do is to churn out more devices and that's something we are pretty good at now.

The future is great and we are heading into it with incredible speed ...

Tim O'Reilly   [12.04.07 09:46 AM]

Ray --

Regarding walled gardens, I was referring to the end of the carrier monopoly on what can be run over cellular networks. The walled garden can still exist. It just moves up a level. This was the whole point of my article, The Open Source Paradigm Shift. The open PC architecture engendered Microsoft and Intel. The open internet is now breeding its next generation of monopolies.

So yes, the kindle does appear to be a walled garden. But it can exist because the carrier control over spectrum is starting to break down. (But I will bet that the kindle is as expensive as it is, and has some of the odd business model features (like paying for blogs) because whomever Amazon is buying that spectrum from has them by the short hairs.)

Post A Comment:

 (please be patient, comments may take awhile to post)

Remember Me?

Subscribe to this Site

Radar RSS feed