Semantics of openness teeming with contradictions

The meaning of “open” is in the eye of the beholder. Clearly the mobile communications industry is opening up to new ideas, business models, device concepts and the like, but is it becoming truly open? With so many competing commercial interests, not to mention legal and regulatory issues, efforts to really change the business face numerous hurdles.

At Qualcomm’s BREW 2008 conference last month in San Diego, Qualcomm announced efforts to further open its highly successful BREW mobile platform. Openness appeared to be executives’ mantra as they discussed the integration of Adobe Flash into the BREW Mobile Platform and the introductions of Plaza – Qualcomm’s new platform-agnostic widget framework, based on open standards that use the BREW service-delivery ecosystem – and the year-old BrandXtend platform for off-deck content. “Opening up BREW helps us and you in the delivery of new services,” Andrew Gilbert, executive vice president and president of Qualcomm Internet Services, MediaFLO Technologies and Qualcomm Europe, told BREW developers.

But amid this spirit of openness were murmurs of discontent regarding the high level of scrutiny applied by Qualcomm to the demonstration devices, speaker presentations and marketing materials at BREW 2008. Qualcomm reportedly told BREW participants that the company had to be extra careful, because of the cease-and-desist order imposed by the US International Trade Commission on the marketing of devices that include Qualcomm chipsets deemed to infringe a Broadcom patent.

But some exhibitors told me that some handsets that had recently been shipped to the US and were being sold there – meaning the devices had ostensibly been allowed into the US because they did not conflict with any legal rulings – were not allowed to be used in demonstrations. They also said that every speaker’s presentation had to be approved, and sometimes edited, by Qualcomm before the event. Qualcomm even insisted on inspecting, and potentially rejecting, every piece of marketing material destined for booths on the show floor, the exhibitors said.

Such actions make one question Qualcomm’s interpretation of the word “open” as it relates to the free flow of ideas, particularly when exhibitors and speakers were whispering about the “Qualcomm police” and “censorship that was truly stunning.”

Qualcomm apparently felt that it had to make these moves to protect its interests, which is something every company in a free-market society must do to survive and compete. And Qualcomm’s not the only company that’s touting an open approach but leaving some to wonder just what the term is supposed to mean.

Take Google. Its Linux-based Android operating system and the company’s backing of the Open Handset Alliance to help push Android and its own vision of mobile industry openness have been part of a full-scale campaign to turn Google into the poster child for all things open, including open-source platforms and open access.

But is Google really interested in altruistically opening the industry to all, or is it merely staking out its own beachhead?

Arun Sarin, former chairman of Vodafone, has said that the Android OS is “open for Google” only. He has also expressed concerns regarding plans Google might have for the user data that it could amass via Android-powered handsets.

At the BREW show, an executive with a white-label-search-engine company told me that Sarin has been trying to warn the industry after learning from his mistake in choosing Google as the search engine for Vodafone Live users with 3G handsets. When the deal was announced in February 2006, Vodafone basically gave away its brand and valuable handset-screen real estate to the largest Internet search engine, a mistake guaranteed to haunt Vodafone’s branding efforts for years to come and help Google continue to build a mobile user base that it can profit from.

And Google is still signing favored-partner deals with mobile operators, which is hardly an open approach to business. For a US$500 million investment, Google earned the opportunity to become the official search provider and a preferred provider of other apps for the new Clearwire – the WiMAX joint venture of Sprint Nextel and Clearwire – which will also support Android in its retail voice and data products. Google has also been named the default provider of web- and local-search services for Sprint’s CDMA network.

Obviously, most companies want an “open” environment that suits their needs but not necessarily other firms’. In addition, there are numerous challenges – technical, legal and political – in creating a fully open mobile communications environment. Many are talking the talk, but we have yet to see whether any will walk the walk when it comes to throwing open the doors to their end of the mobile business.

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