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The future’s bright, the future’s open

The door is open for open source

Open source specialist, consultant and Harvard fellow David “Doc” Searls writes about why he believes openness has to be the future for mobile.

We have to take the long view. Things are changing so fast that there’s not much choice—not if we want to get a useful perspective. Of course the long view is also an uncertain one. It’s easier to be clear about what’s going on now, even if it’s wild and crazy.  Fortunately, it’s not hard to connect the dots and see where they point. Start with this one: Less than a year and a half ago, the iPhone application market didn’t exist. Nor did the Android app market. (Nor did an Android phone.) Now add some stats from CommScore, all for a period ending October last year (figures are for the “EU5”—France, Germany Italy, Spain and the UK):

  • Data plans are growing at 31.1 per cent per year.
  • 3G plans are growing at 40.9 per cent.
  • Mobile media users are growing at 44.7 per cent.
  • The average length of handset ownership is 18.7 months.
  • The percentage of mobile media users with a device six months old or less is 37 per cent.
  • One third of social networking users access social media exclusively on mobile devices.

Says CommScore: “The internet took off when people moved from dial-up to broadband. A similar change is happening to mobile.” That change is beyond profound, because it requires a shift in supporting infrastructure.  Broadband is internet, and internet is data—not telephony. The wild frontier for smartphones is all in the first syllable. Handhelds will become data devices that do telephony, not telephony devices that do data.

At this moment in history, the iPhone points the way. It does this not by being a better phone (at that it’s unexceptional), but by being a handheld data device that also does telephony. At last count, telephony was one among 70,000+ other applications on the iPhone.

Just as significant is Apple’s unlimited data deal with AT&T in the US. By taking fear of data over-use out of the customer’s mind, Apple and AT&T opened the development gates to thousands of new data-intensive applications. (In fact I helped with one of them: a player app that streams radio stations and programs on demand. I’m not sure that app would have been developed in the absence of an unlimited data usage plan.)

Apple, however, has taken a closed approach to market development. One developer I know describes Apple’s basic strategy as, “finding a market where progress is log-jammed, and building a whole new vertical stovepipe around a piece of gotta-have-it hardware. They did this in the MP3 market with the iPod, and did it again in the cell phone market with the iPhone.”

The problem with this strategy is that the internet is horizontal. So are all the open development methods that produced the net and the million-plus open source development projects that have grown there. To maximise development in mobile’s broadband future, open platforms and development environments are required.

Linux has had these for the duration, but Linux has also suffered from “plethorisation”—forking and branching its way to countless different versions and implementations. Google brought a degree of order to the OEM side of that market with Android. The LiMo Foundation brought together the operator side of that market with a core suite of middleware. And now Symbian is on its way to becoming a fully open platform as well. Once that happens (it’s on track for early next year, along with Qt—a cross-platform application and UI framework), the frontier opens to include Symbian’s enormous standing market share. (Android’s is still small, but is bound to grow as well.)

What happens next is outlined in Paul Budde’s Global Mobile Broadband Statistics and Trends report, from April of this year. Some take-aways:

  • Expect to see LTE (Long Term Evolution, or 4G) develop into a mass market between 2012 and 2015. The LTE spec calls for downstream peak rates of 100 Mbps or more, uplink peak rates 50 Mbps or more, and local wireless round trip times of under 10ms. This is faster than most existing FttH (fiber to the home) deployments.
  • LBS (Location Based Search) is set to explode as GPS capabilities grow.
  • 3G mobile broadband is rapidly outgrowing DSL and other wireless broadband services in Africa.
  • Mobile games will be cheap, and revenue from them will grow. Worldwide revenues are estimated at  $4.9bn (US) in 2009 and 7.0bn (US) in 2013.

It is essential not to see this market as one that exists in the zone of partnerships between OEMs and operators. The internet (read: the PC market) doesn’t work that way and neither will the mobile market, in the long run. In the past OEM-operator arrangements limited what could be done on mobile devices. For example, Nokia’s E62 in the US was nearly identical to the E61 sold in Europe and elsewhere in the world, but without wi-fi and 3G—obviously because Nokia’s US operators didn’t want those features.

There are several ways out of this old and obsolete logjam in the middle of the mobile marketplace. One is for the operators to wake up and smell the opportunity. (The handset OEMs are already there.) Another is for new non-mass open handset marketplaces to open up (possibly starting with verticals such as college students, retirees and law enforcement groups). Yet another is for wireless data access to bypass mobile phone networks. Name your strategy; it has to be done.

There is plenty of money to be made in the open mobile future. Less of it, however, will be made the old way (by charging for minutes, and roaming, for example); and more of it will be made in new ways (by charging for apps and updates, charging for services, and advertising that goes both ways—with demand advertising its needs, rather than just supply advertising its goods).

In the long run, freedom wins. Openness wins. And the internet wins; because it was built with both, and supports both.

Doc Searls is a fellow with both the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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