Imagine an Open Wireless Phone System

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2007-10-24 Print this article Print

Opinion: Advocates for openness argue that the cell phone companies have no business telling us what software we can and can't run on our phones. They should be careful what they wish for.

I recently went to buy new cell phones for my wife and me. Verizon Wireless had been nagging me to do this over the phone or online for a while and Ive been due for a "free" upgrade for almost a year, but I want to see and try the phone in my own hands first. It was an agonizing experience. I knew every step of the way that I was being robbed. I only stick with them because theyve got the best network in my area. It must be in the nature of big telecom companies to take every last penny they can get away with. They operate as if the whole thing could come crashing down any minute and theyd better take all the money they can while they can. In their shoes, maybe Id do the same thing.

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But it really makes me sympathetic when I read Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal writing about the overbearing control the telecoms have over their users operation of their own phones. Mossberg analogizes it to PCs: Imagine your ISP telling you what programs you could run on your PC. (In fact, if youre a Comcast user running BitTorrent you dont need to do a lot of imagining.)

I know where Mossbergs coming from here and I admire this part of his work. He advocates unflinchingly for the interests of the consumer. But hes missing, or at least not addressing, an important point in this specific subject. He argues that the mobile phone business would be a lot better if customers were able, as they are able with their PCs on the Internet, to install and run whatever applications they please. What would happen?

Apple has been asking those same questions. They probably led Apple to initially deny the option of running native apps on the iPhone. After being shown by hackers that native apps were coming, with or without permission, Apple will release an SDK, but they know this stuff is complicated: "It will take until February to release an SDK because were trying to do two diametrically opposed things at once—provide an advanced and open platform to developers while at the same time protect iPhone users from viruses, malware, privacy attacks, etc."

Next page: What Will Apple Do?

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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