Open Mobility?


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Nov 24, 2008 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Last week I was at a conference in San Francisco entitled "Open Mobile Summit".
For their first attempt the organizers did what I thought was a very good job organizing this conference, getting people from many branches of the mobile telephone industry (handset manufacturers, carriers, service providers and ISPs) to come together to talk about "Open Mobility".

There were even representatives from Research In Motion (makers of the Blackberry) and much mention was made of the Apple iPhone, and even though neither were considered to be very "Open", they were featured in the discussions regarding such areas as security, reliability, fragmentation and making money.

Many of the speakers started by talking about the number of cell phones that exist today, and the potential for "many billions more" in the near future.

During the conference, however, I slowly began to recognize several things:

  • most of the speakers were discussing issues revolving around the "first world"
  • most of the conversations steered away from "Openness" and ran toward other issues
  • when people did talk about "Openness", it had the focus of "It is great that your product is open, but why should I open up mine?"

One of the few examples of people talking about developing nations was Nokia, who talked about some of their services that they are rolling out for people.

The reason why I found this ironic was that if the number of mobile devices that were going to roll out reached their promise, then most of that expansion will have to come from "developing nations", yet very little of the conference focused on that, or how FOSS could help those nations.

It reminded me of a United Nations event on the "Digital Divide" to which I was invited several years ago. The panel members, all representatives of high tech, only spoke about how they needed to improve the IP laws in developing nations so they could sell their products. No real discussion about the "digital divide", or how to solve it.

After a day and one-half of this, it was time for my panel where we were to talk about "Innovation". I started by describing what I thought of as "openness", using the Openmoko FreeRunner as an example. I told people that an "open phone" was simply one that had all of its component hardware module's (GSM, GPS, USB, Bluetooth, 802.11, video, etc.) programming interfaces documented. The FreeRunner has gone a step or two further by documenting the case CAD data, and the motherboard's circuit diagram, but for most people these are niceties. Just knowing how to program the hardware would be enough.

Then on top of that "open phone" you give people a choice of operating system stacks (Openmoko, Qtopia, Linux/Debian, Android) and you give them a choice of carrier (by allowing them to buy a SIM card) and a choice of services. Yes, you can suggest (and offer) a package of all of these, but people should also be able to easily buy "a la carte".

Granted, a phone the power of a FreeRunner is probably not the phone that a person in a developing nation will purchase new. However, "open" phones have an advantage in their longevity. When, in two or three years, the owner decides to upgrade to a newer piece of hardware, two things may occur:

  • the current owner probably could keep the same software stack as the previous smart phone, saving time and energy in moving their data from the older phone to the newer phone
  • the current owner could sell the older phone to someone who would refurbish it and sell it to a person in a developing nation who could not afford a new phone of that power.

This refurbished phone would have an up-to-date operating system, complete with all the latest patches...something hard to get with a closed source, proprietary operating system whose vendor had lost interest in it three months after it left the factory. This would not only help people in developing nations get the phones they need, but lower the Total Cost of Ownership of the person buying the phone new.

Today you buy "bandwidth" from a major carrier and you are offered a phone and a series of services. If you do not like the packages they offer, it is really hard to get the combination of carrier bandwidth, phone, operating system, and applications you want.

As I left the summit that night, I wondered what would happen if phone manufacturers just made phones, carriers just sold bandwidth, service providers just provided "ISP" services and acted as a conduit for third-party applications, etc. What would happen if, instead of having your carrier subsidize your new phone (and have you pay for it over time), you had some other way of financing your phone, perhaps in conjunction with a software and hardware warranty contract tied to the phone, and not to the carrier? Would that be a major step to being more "open"? Giving people more choice?

Something to discuss in next year's "Open Mobility Summit".

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