PALO ALTO, Calif. — You might not think of traditional carrier Verizon Wireless as a radical, cutting-edge player in the competitive mobile device market, but the trend toward more open systems is transforming the company.
“I’m in a place to be an insurgent and give customers more choices, so you can get any applications you want on your phone,” said Anthony Lewis, vice president of Open Development at Verizon. “Customers are taking us to more choice and openness,” Lewis explained. “In my mind, I’m the lead dog [the rest of the company will] have to follow.”
This is all new for Verizon, which only created its Open Development business unit in January. “It just made good business sense,” said Lewis, who notes his group has its own profit and loss statement and budget.
Lewis spoke on a panel that discussed the competition for open mobile systems here at the AlwaysOn Stanford Summit. Verizon was declared a
winning bidder in the auction earlier this year for the multibillion dollar 700MHz spectrum, which will let the carriers provide a new platform of services to mobile users.
The company also announced it would open its system so developers will be able to bring mobile applications to consumers in a far quicker, standard way without lengthy negotiations and restrictions from the carrier.
Other panelists readily endorsed the move to openness, seemingly competing at times to claim a better open strategy.
“Anything moving to more openness is positive,” said Rich Miner, vice president of mobile at Google (NASDAQ: GOOG).
“For us, what’s most important is that consumers have access to any Web site and content without restrictions.”
According to Miner, Verizon, AT&T (NYSE: T) and others are now competing to see who can be more open when in the past a company wouldn’t have a title with “open” in it as Verizon does.
Google was an early bidder in the government’s spectrum auction. Even though the search giant lost, it was able to achieve its primary objective, which was to influence the government’s decision to impose open access rules Verizon and AT&T now say they are embracing.
Even Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) — or at least one of its key supporters — claims it’s a leader in openness for what is generally considered a closed device. Matt Murphy runs the $100 million iFund for iPhone developers at venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. “How do you define open?” Murphy asked. “What other platforms offer 1,000 applications, 20 percent of which are free?”
Apple requires iPhone developers to use its software development kit and submit their applications for approval and distribution through Apple’s online App Store. (Apple says the iPhone currently offers more than 500 applications for download). Murphy said more applications were downloaded via the App Store in the first 10 days than all other competitors in the United States combined could account for in a typical month.
More than 10 million application downloads reportedly took place in the first three days of the iPhone 3G’s release. “That’s open to me,” he said. “I don’t think anyone will argue the iPhone hasn’t changed the game.”
Next page: Nokia’s big open source move
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Nokia’s big open source move
But Murphy was challenged on the number of downloads versus what Nokia customers and other download and just how much credit Apple should be given by David Rivas, Nokia’s vice president for software strategy and business development. “Let’s be honest, they’ve been downloading software on phones in Japan for 10 years,” said Rivas.
Rivas did agree the mobile industry is undergoing a “massive transition” to more open systems and noted Nokia has been an active participant. Earlier this month the phone giant bought the remaining parts of Symbian, the mobile operating system it had invested in with others. Nokia now is making the Symbian OS open source to spark further third-party development.
Nokia’s partners are excited about open source access, according to Rivas. With the open source access, Rivas said, developers have more freedom to quickly customize their offerings and make investments without worrying about a controlling company changing the rules.
Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is the other big player making the first and arguably seminal open mobile gamble. The company and partners launched the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) earlier this year and a variety of devices based on
the OHA software stack are expected by early next year.
Miner said the partners have agreed to stay consistent with the code base and not fragment the market, although it’s an open source stack. The OHA will release compliance software, also open source, so vendors can test and consumers can confirm a device is compliant.
According to Miner, anyone could use the software and tweak it in a noncompliant way, but he doesn’t think companies will have much interest in doing that. He said, for example, developers in the past have “put a veneer on another UI. It doesn’t quite work.”
According to Miner, more than 1 million copies of the OHA software development kit have been downloaded. “We believe it will be the de facto standard for Linux-based platforms in the mobile space.”
That said, the idea behind OHA is to enable a platform that can work on a wide variety of devices. Miner mentioned those with and without touch screens, different screen sizes and form factors. “This is about a platform for many different phones,” he said.
The openness trend also stands to shake up pricing models. “One of the fatal mistakes I could make is to stick with traditional pricing,” Verizon’s Lewis said.