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Open technologies need open access

Posted by terrencebarr on July 20, 2007 at 5:57 AM PDT

To make a technology truly useful, accessible, adaptable, and innovative in a way that impacts our lives profoundly there are two fundamental prerequisites: First, the technology itself (the specifications and designs) must be open and, second, access to the use of that technology must be open (accessible in a  non-discriminatory manner).

The Internet, of course, is a prime and important example: There have been numerous attempts by various entities over the years to introduce proprietary extensions and protocols or to limit access to a "walled-garden". In the long run all of these attempts fail because the value of the Internet is defined by the fact that it is based on open standards, that access is open, and that everyone can participate (whether a large corporation, non-profit organization, or individual) equally (the network effect). This is not to forget that a large part of the world still doesn't have reliable Internet access for economic or political reasons. The point is, participants on the Internet simply won't accept anything less. This self-governing mechanism is critical because it maintains the general health of the Internet and the attached technologies.

However, not all is well in the wireless space. Wireless data and Internet access are dominated and controlled by a small number of wireless carriers who have a history of proprietary technology and tightly controlled access. For sure, these carriers have spent billions of dollars building out the wireless infrastructure and need to recoup these costs over time. As long as wireless access mainly meant voice, where features are few and innovation mainly occurred behind closed doors, that approach was probably acceptable.

As wireless features increasingly shift from voice to data and Internet-like functionality this approach is becoming increasingly limiting. As it stands today mobile devices are often tied to certain carriers and plans, restricted in the data they can send and the protocols they can use, 3rd party developers are generally limited in the functionality they can access on the device (even after testing and verification by the carrier), and finally carriers limit the types of applications that can be used on a device through their portals. Just image for a second a similar situation for the wired Internet and your PC or Mac. Imaging Microsoft or Apple would control the applications you can install. Image your Linux application would be barred from accessing certain APIs without you paying a fee. Imagine your Internet provider would only open port 80 on your Internet connection and then cripple the incoming and outgoing HTTP traffic. That's essentially what's happening in the wireless space today.

The carriers argue that the reliability and security of the wireless network and the attached devices is paramount and they need to exert that control to maintain service guarantees and protect against liability issues. I buy into that argument to some extent but have the distinct impression carriers are overshooting that goal by far. For example, on laptops your wireless PC Card allows you to access pretty much everything on the Internet on all ports with very few limitations (notably often, VoIP). Why is that all of a sudden a security or reliability concern on a phone which uses the very same network infrastructure and carrier? Or is this more about protecting a business model that is built around the comfortable situation the industry is in today where a small number of carriers hold the keys to essentially all wireless data access?

To be clear: Some carriers are better and more open in this regard than others. Some are moving, albeit slowly, in the right direction but there are still many carriers that don't get it. Interestingly, these carriers appear to ignore the history of the wired Internet where almost all innovative (and eventually many lucrative) services came from unexpected places. In the current tightly controlled and restricted wireless environment most of these innovations would fail at the carriers doors thus depriving these very carriers of the revenues they seek to extract from their infrastructure. And opening the wireless Internet doesn't necessarily have to mean the carrier networks simply become "dumb pipes" - the ultimate fear of every service provider. Precisely because the typical wireless customer is non-technical there are still many opportunities for generating revenue based on innovates services with higher integration and a superior user experience.

Java ME, together with all other mobile software technologies such as OpenMoko, depends on open wireless networks and access in the same way the open Internet gave rise to the Linux, Google, EBay, and YouTube. This in not just about freeing the iPhone. This is an issue for the entire IT industry. It is about wireless freedom that enables the mobile Internet to allow pervasive information access and features and services we don't yet imagine. Among other things access to the 700 Mhz spectrum is critical for taking wireless technology to the next level, to make it truly useful, accessible, adaptable, and innovative beyond todays stalemate.

-- Terrence

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